Search icon


21st Jun 2017

SAHM or career? Mums are happier when they do what they want

The debate has caused heartache and controversy over the years.

Alison Bough

working mum SAHM

Stay at home or go out to work? The debate has caused heartache and controversy over the years, but now psychologists are stating what many mamas already know – women should simply do what makes them happy.

working mum SAHM

The centre of a mother’s life tends to be her children and her family, but if a mum is unhappy about staying home with the kids or about working outside the home then she (and anyone close to her) may suffer, according to research psychologists from Arizona State University.

In a brand new study just published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, researchers studied more than 2,000 mums and considered their well-being in terms of not just whether they worked outside of the home, but also if they wanted to work or not. And, surprise surprise, the study showed that the best adjusted mothers were the ones who pursued the lifestyle they wanted.

Dr Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology and leader of the research group, says the SAHM versus working mum debate is missing the point:

“It’s not about simply being employed versus being a stay-at-home mom that makes the difference. We found that women who were living in synch with their own preference showed the most positive adjustment overall. Conversely, the ‘misaligned moms’ experienced considerable distress and unhappiness.”

working mum SAHM

In the study, the researchers examined the well-being of mothers in four groups: those who were employed and wanting to work (work-want work); not employed and not wanting work (home-want home); employed because they need the money (work-for money); and not employed but wanting to work (home-want work). Overall, mums in the first two “aligned” groups reported much better adjustment than the second two groups that are ‘misaligned’.

Mums who regretted staying at home consistently fared the worst psychologically, exhibiting the lowest levels of fulfillment, highest levels of emptiness and loneliness, and reports of greater child maladjustment and more feelings of rejection toward their children. Professor Luthar says this makes sense:

“For those women who wanted very much to apply their educational degrees and career skills at work, but for whatever reason needed to stay home, it’s understandable that they’d struggle with feelings of emptiness and lack of fulfilment.”

Lead author Lucia Ciciolla, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, says there are practical issues at play for mothers making these tough decisions:

“When the ‘home-want work’ group was asked about why they did not pursue work, the most common reason that they gave was the lack of appropriate childcare. These data are important in showing that there are many mothers who would prefer to work but are unable to with associated ill-effects on psychological and emotional functioning.

We believe that for mothers to be successful in both career and parenting roles, there must be practical and structural support – appropriate childcare and flexible hours – that makes it possible.”

working mum SAHM

The researchers also examined major factors associated with the well-being of mothers in the four different groups and Ciciolla says that there was remarkable consistency in what seemed to matter most:

“Findings across all four groups suggest that feeling emotionally supported is a fundamental need that is universal among mothers, regardless of their employment status. Unconditional acceptance and authenticity in relationships were consistently found to be important across multiple measures of maternal well-being.”

In addition, friendship satisfaction emerged as a key factor in promoting life satisfaction and mitigating loneliness for the majority of mums, and for stay-at-home mums was also consistently associated with feeling fulfilled. Dr Luthar says that mums have to make their own well-being a priority:

“The reality is that caring for children is emotionally and psychologically challenging work, so it is essential that moms get ‘refuelled’ themselves. Feeling emotionally supported and satisfied with friendships is critical for well-being regardless of one’s employment status or preferences on that front. All moms need to be nurtured themselves, and this must happen on an ongoing basis.”