Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan made a startling prediction in her controversial best-seller, “The Feminine Mystique.” If American housewives would embark on lifelong careers, she claimed, they would be happier and healthier, their marriages would be more satisfying, and their children would thrive.
At the time, experts believed that a married woman should work only to kill time while searching for a husband or to fill time after the children had left home. A wife who pursued a career was considered a maladjusted woman who would damage her marriage and her kids.
Today, with almost two-thirds of married mothers employed and women the sole or main breadwinner in 40 percent of households, according to a Pew study released Wednesday, we can test these competing points of view.
Friedan wins on the question of whether working improves women’s well-being. At all income levels, stay-at-home mothers report more sadness, anger, and episodes of diagnosed depression than their employed counterparts.
And the benefits of employment mount over a lifetime. A recent multiyear study by the sociologists Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske found that women who worked full time following the birth of their first child had better mental and physical health at age 40 than women who had not worked for pay. Low-wage jobs with urgent and inflexible time demands do raise the risk of depression, especially among new mothers. But in less stressful low-wage jobs, mothers who work relatively long hours during the first year following childbirth experience less depression than those who cut back to fewer hours.
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, a wife taking a job raised the risk of divorce. Today, however, a wife’s employment lowers the couple’s risk of divorce. Among middle-class Americans, dual-earner couples report the highest marital quality. Things are less rosy for wives who do not want to work but are forced to by economic necessity, especially if their husbands don’t pitch in at home. Such women have the least happy marriages in America.
Yet staying home doesn’t necessarily help, because financial distress is an even more potent source of marital unhappiness and conflict than it used to be. In a 2012 Gallup poll, stay-at-home mothers in low-income families were less likely than employed moms at the same income level to report that they had smiled, laughed, or enjoyed themselves “yesterday.”
What about the kids? As more wives took jobs between 1965 and 1985, the time mothers spent with children decreased. But since 1985, both mothers and fathers have increased their time with children. Employed moms spend fewer hours per week with their children than stay-at-home mothers, but they spend more time with their children than homemakers did in 1965!
And fathers nearly tripled their amount of time with children. A review of nearly 70 studies in the United States finds no significant negative effects of maternal employment on the intellectual achievement of young children. And in low-income families, children whose mothers had stable jobs had fewer behavior problems than children whose mothers experienced job instability or who did not work at all, according to another study. In Britain, researchers who controlled for mothers’ education and household income found no negative effects of maternal employment for boys, while girls in two-earner families had fewer behavioral problems than girls in male breadwinner-female homemaker households.And a 2013 study of 75,000 Norwegian children found no behavioral problems linked to children’s time in day care.
Of course, Britain offers 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 of them paid, while Norway, unlike the U.S., has strict standards for day care. Also, the same review that found no ill effects of maternal employment on young children in the U.S. did identify some added risks for adolescents, suggesting that society would benefit from more structured after-school programs for this age group. And a 2010 study found that some children had slightly lower cognitive achievement if mothers worked 30 hours or more a week in the first nine months after their birth.
So while Friedan was right in her counterintuitive claim that maternal employment could be good for women and families, she failed to foresee that the U.S., which pioneered public education for all and was on the verge of establishing a comprehensive child care system in 1971 (before President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the bill), would by the early 21st century have fallen to last place among developed nations in supports for working families. While the average working woman might be better off, we need to offer better maternity leave and child care for those more at risk.
After 50 years, shouldn’t we stop debating whether we want mothers to work and start implementing the social policies and working conditions that will allow families to take full advantage of the benefits of women’s employment and to minimize its stresses?