Motherhood, working life and well-being

A recent study based on the European Social Survey (ESS) examines potential links between employment and subjective well-being among mothers with children under 3 years of age.

Within the growing body of literature on happiness and subjective well-being, gainful employment is considered to be important for an individual’s well-being. But is this also the case for mothers with young children? Betty Friedan advanced the idea that homemaking makes women unhappy and she questioned the image of harmonious domesticity in her book Feminine Mystique from 1963. Since then, there has been ongoing discussions and research concerning whether working mothers enjoy better subjective quality of life than stay-at-home mothers do. Some studies suggest that employed mothers are happier whereas some studies show that homemakers are more satisfied, meaning that previous research offers an inconsistent picture of whether employment is beneficial to mothers or not. This study aims to explore this issue further by examining differences in subjective well-being among working mothers and homemakers in 30 European countries, using pooled data from six waves of the European Social Survey (ESS).  Since different mechanisms are thought to be in play among mothers with small compared to older children, the study focuses on mothers with young children. The mothers’ employment situation and the sensitivity of applying different measures of well-being are also in focus.

The results from the study show that stay-at-home mothers are generally happier than full-time working mothers, and this holds regardless of different measures of happiness applied. Contrary to the author’s expectations, it was found that homemaking was positively associated with happiness particularly among mothers who left higher quality employment for childcare. And though some variation across countries exists, it does not seem to be connected to the provision of formal childcare, the duration of parental leave or to the tax system.

The author concludes that the result may be explained in terms of mothers’ self-selection into employment or homemaking, meaning that women who have secure employments with high status and become stay-at-home mothers, are likely to be a selective group that chooses to stay at home or believes that homemaking brings them many benefits. But the limitations of the study hinders further examinations of the matter.

The text above is based on the publication:

Hamplová, Dana. 2018. Does Work Make Mothers Happy? Journal of Happiness Studies: 1-27. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9958-2