Why Stay-at-Home Mothers Are More Depressed Than Working Moms

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 22 2012 6:30 AM

Why Are Stay-at-Home Mothers More Depressed?

The latest battleground in the war on moms.

Sad Mom.
Stay-at-home moms report a higher percentage of depression than other women

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In the latest unfortunate news at the intersection of motherhood and politics, stay-at-home moms are doing worse emotionally than their working counterparts. According to a Gallup poll released last week, mothers who don’t work outside the home were far more likely to be depressed, with 28 percent reporting depression, compared with 17 percent of working mothers, and also 17 percent of working women who don’t have children. In fact, stay-at-home moms fare worse than these two groups by every emotional measure in the survey, reporting more anger, sadness, stress, and worry. They were more likely to describe themselves as struggling and suffering and less likely to see themselves as “thriving.”

Gallup offers up the survey as a way to probe the political impact of the recent “war on moms,” the firestorm that the followed Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s now infamous statement that Ann Romney hadn’t “worked a day in her life.” And the findings do offer some evidence that stay-at-home moms, who make up 37 percent of Gallup’s sample of mothers with kids living at home, are more likely to be unhappy, resentful—and thus perhaps also likely to take umbrage, along with Romney, at being portrayed as lazy or irrelevant. Romney tapped into a long and strong current of resentment among stay-at-home mothers when she tweeted that raising five boys was “hard work.”

She has a point, of course—and not just a political one. Stay-at-home moms’ contributions, which include keeping schools running by volunteering their time, are often ignored if not outright derided. Caring for kids is hard work. It’s also, at times, emotionally grueling, physically exhausting, tedious, and isolating, all of which could help account for the low morale of the people doing it full-time. And, as Romney suggested, caring for one’s own children is also undervalued work (and thus often not referred to as work at all, as in the case of Romney’s own husband, who suggested that low-income stay-at-home moms be required to experience “the dignity of work” in order to receive public benefits). It’s pretty easy to see how being deprived of the status that comes with employment could leave someone feeling dumped upon, angry and, well, depressed. Humans thrive on recognition. Our happiness hinges on feeling appreciated.

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But if Ann Romney was spot-on about both the derision reserved for stay-at-home mothers and how offended they are by it, what she doesn’t get—and what was reflected clearly in the Gallup poll—is the economic expression of this same sentiment: that the work of caring for children is also undervalued economically, which adds to the financial and emotional burdens of mothers who don’t have jobs. Financial strain is, in many ways, a bigger problem than lack of appreciation. It hinders the work of raising kids, and it dogs women long after they’ve returned to the paid work force (as most ultimately do) in the form of reduced earnings and Social Security benefits.

Despite one of our favorite American myths about the stay-at-home mom—that she flits from yoga class to lunch date to mani-pedi appointment or, for that matter, that she could be epitomized by someone whose husband’s net worth is about $200 million—mothers who don’t do paid work are actually poorer, on average, than employed mothers. They also tend to be younger, Latina, and foreign-born, according to the latest census numbers. They’re less likely to have graduated from high school or attained a bachelor’s degree. In short, these are not the Ann Romneys of the world. And both their relative lack of education and wealth in turn contribute directly to their heightened depression and stress.

There is ample evidence that lower education levels increase the chances of depression, particularly among women. And the relationship between depression and low income is even clearer. But we don’t have to delve into the psychiatric literature to see the mood-dampening effects of financial struggle. Within the Gallup survey, low-income stay-at-home moms, defined as those living in households with incomes below $36,000 per year, rated lowest of all mothers on every emotional measure, including being least likely to say they smiled or laughed a lot, or experienced happiness or enjoyment in the past day.

This is not to say that finances are stay-at-home moms’ only problem. Even among low-income mothers, those who worked outside the home were emotionally better off than those who didn’t, which suggests that the lack of recognition and outside stimulation is a real, independent factor in the mental health of all moms regardless of income. But because staying at home almost always comes at a financial cost, economics are at the heart of why mothers without jobs are particularly blue.

Like all mothers, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be blue in the political sense, too, with 30 percent of those polled identifying as Democrats, compared to 22 percent identifying as Republicans. This imbalance makes sense, given the fact that the GOP has thus far offered stay-at-home mothers platitudes and phony solidarity instead of anything of substance. To be fair, though, neither party is saying enough about the things that might help stay-at-home moms out of their financial hole, things like paid parental leave (the lack of which nudges many new mothers out of the workforce); protections for part-time workers, which would allow mothers to spend some time with their kids and get some income, job satisfaction, and recognition; affordable childcare, which would make holding down those part- and full-time jobs possible; and changing the way we track earnings toward Social Security, so the years spent at home with children aren’t recorded as zeros.

Building political momentum for this agenda is hard, as writer Judith Warner recently noted. But the absence of these basic supports—and the bipartisan inattention to them—is the real “war on moms,” I argue in my recent book, which is in fact called The War on Moms. Fighting these battles for stay-at-home mothers would ease their financial struggles. And, yes, make them—and the rest of mothers, too—happier.

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at Demos and the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation. Follow her on Twitter or email her at fastlerner@gmail.com.

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