Dec. 13, 2011 -- Mothers who work part time may be enjoying some unexpected full-time perks: Better overall health and fewer signs of depression compared to stay-at-home moms.
A new study suggests mothers who work part time, especially when their children are babies and preschool age, have less symptoms of depression and better self-reported health than mothers who stay home.
In fact, in many areas, the emotional well-being and health of moms working part time was no different from mothers holding down full-time positions -- even if there were differences in paychecks.
"A mother's economic role is central to family life, and it supports her well-being and her parenting," says researcher Cheryl Buehler, PhD. Previous research has looked at whether or not a mother was working and how this affected her children. But those results have been inconsistent.
Yet there's been little study of part-time work in particular, and its effect on motherhood, family life, and parenting in general.
In this study, researchers wanted to find out whether a mother's part-time work was more similar to those who stay at home or those who work full time. Working part time was considered anything between one and 32 hours of work a week.
Researchers reviewed data from more than 1,300 mothers across the U.S. Information was collected from seven different interviews with mothers over a 10-year period beginning in 1991.
Mom's Part-Time Perks
As expected, mothers who worked part time tended to have fewer work and family conflicts and were more involved in their child's schooling than their full-time peers.
They also provided more learning opportunities both inside the home, such as reading books, and outside of it, such as visiting parks or museums.
In addition, part timers appeared to have a gentler touch when it came to parenting. They were shown to be more sensitive with their preschool-age children than full timers and even stay-at-home mothers.
"Work offers mothers real important opportunities and resources to minimize social isolation and enrich their social development and well-being," says Buehler. She is a professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "It gives mothers tools, ideas, and strategies when raising a child."
On the job, mothers are involved in problem solving, grappling with different points of view, and handling diverse personalities, Buehler tells WebMD. And all these skills can be taken home and put to use, especially as children get older.
Buehler also found it interesting that although mothers who worked full time reported more work-family conflicts, this stress did not appear to affect the women's psychological well-being. In other words, it was not translating into more depressive symptoms, such as feeling down or trouble sleeping.
Mothers working part time did more housework and childcare than full-time working mothers. And having a part-time job did not increase a couple's intimacy.
The Rewards of Work
Since the study spanned a decade, it followed mothers from when their child was a baby until sixth grade. And while roughly 25% of mothers worked part time over this period, employment status shifted a lot between not working, part-time jobs, and full-time positions.
Movement within the work force is even truer in today's economic climate, where both mothers and fathers are taking work when and where they can get it.
"In terms of parenting and balancing work and home, being a part-time worker provides the best of both worlds for mothers," says Jennifer Fraone, who was not involved in the study. She is an assistant director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family in Chestnut Hill, Mass. This seems intuitive, she says, because they have more time.
Fraone, a part-time working mother, says she can be both an involved mom and a talented employee. Mothers like her may benefit from the social aspects of work, the increased financial stability, and from being challenged or feeling fulfilled on the job.
"One thing I really dislike is the ‘mommy wars’ conflict -- [the notion] that one situation, working or staying home, is better than another," Fraone tells WebMD. "This is a very personal decision for every woman and for every couple."
But it's her hope that from research like this, more companies might think "outside the box" and consider creating more part time and flexible work arrangements for mothers.
The research was published in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.