At 40, the physical and mental health of mothers who have largely stayed… (Ramon Mena Owens )
The study and its findings might seem like the opening of a new front on the perennial skirmishes of the "Mommy Wars": continuous work outside the home after the birth of a first child makes a mother healthier at age 40 than the mom who stayed home to care for her baby, and healthier even than the one who pared her hours back to part-time.
But the latest study, presented in Denver on Monday at the American Sociological Assn.'s annual conference, finds that what seem to be our "choices" after the birth of children may be less a matter of choice than an extension of our lives up to that point.
Yes, better mental and physical health may in part be the reward for a woman's decision to maintain her investment in the work world after the birth of a first child. But the study finds that both the choice to work outside the home and the health consequences that follow also could be seen as the natural consequences of what a woman's life was like before she became a mother, including factors such as married parents, more education, her own marriage and the relative financial stability that comes with it, a longer history of employment and even, perhaps, higher cognitive function.
The study takes a "life course" approach to health as a woman approaches midlife, looking at factors in place at the time a first child is born and how they unspool as baby and mother grow up. It finds that for 2,540 women followed for at least 12 years from the birth of their first child, those who continued full-time work in the wake of their first child's birth had the best physical and mental health at age 40; women who "pulled back" after their first child's birth, and either worked part-time or delayed their entry into the workforce, enjoyed equally good mental health but did not fare quite as well physically at 40.
Women who experienced multiple stints of unemployment and partial employment during the 12 years following a first child's birth suffered significantly poorer mental and physical health than those who worked steadily outside the home. And so, too, did women who reported they were full-time stay-at-home mothers.
"Variables such as pre-pregnancy work experience, cognitive skill and single parenthood do not simply select a woman into work. Instead, these early disadvantages set in motion later life events that have serious repercussions for health," wrote the study's authors.
But the experience that comes with motherhood matters, too: For part-time workers, the lower pay, lesser chance for promotion and high status and inferior access to benefits all are associated with poorer health, the authors note -- although their shorter hours at work may give these women a boost in mental health. Unstable work brings with it poorer health behaviors, greater psychological distress and more financial instability, which also have negative effects on health.
Compared to their peers in the workforce, stay-at-home moms have "reduced social networks, financial dependence and greater social isolation, all of which place a strain on health," the authors suggest. And their unpaid work "may reduce the self-esteem of mothers who stay at home, placing them at increased financial risk and creating uncertainty, which may strain health."