Moms Who Cut Back at Work Are Happier

The doing-it-all discussion ignores the fact that the happiest women are making sacrifices at work to spend more time at home
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Reuters

Two facts are often obscured in the public conversation devoted to women, work, and family. First, the vast majority of married mothers don’t want to work full-time. Second, married mothers who are able to cut back at work to accommodate their family’s needs tend to be happier. The news cycle is stuck in a lean-in loop, but new data show mothers report more happiness when they can lean homeward.

New data from the recent Pew Research Center survey shared with The Atlantic tells the second part of the story. Mothers and fathers were asked by Pew if they had made family-related sacrifices for work—from quitting their job to turning down a promotion. Pew found that 65 percent of mothers had made such a family-related sacrifice, compared to 45 percent of fathers.

Women married with children were more likely to be “very happy” with their lives if they made a family-related work sacrifice. By contrast, the happiness of married men was not significantly related to making work sacrifices for their families.

What does this data really tell us? Let’s start with explaining what it doesn’t tell us. These results do not prove that spending less time at work makes women happier. It could be, for instance, that happier women are more likely to make work sacrifices, in the first place. Or it could be that more affluent mothers, who are more likely to be happy above a certain level of income, can spend more time with their families than poorer moms.

But these results are consistent with a pattern found regularly in research on women’s work and family preferences: Most (married) mothers would prefer not to work full-time, and the most popular option for women, when it comes to juggling work and family, is part-time work. A New York Times/CBS News survey this year found that 49 percent of mothers wished to work part-time, compared to 27 percent who wished to work full-time (and note also the gender differences in work preferences in this poll).

Results from New York Times/CBS News poll conducted May 31-June 4, 2013.

Another recent Pew Research Center study found that married mothers are especially likely to prefer part-time work:

This data suggests that one reason married mothers who make work sacrifices are happier is that they would prefer to scale back at work—at least for some portion of their lives as mothers—and are happier when they can do so.

This reality is often glossed over in the public conversation about work, women, and family, but as Catherine Rampell at The New York Times observed: “Not everyone aspires to be an executive at Facebook, like [Sheryl] Sandberg, or to set foreign policy, like Anne-Marie Slaughter” (author of “Why Women Can’t Have It All”).” Instead, as K.J. Dell’Antonia put it, most women are “striving for flexibility and balance” when it comes to juggling their aspirations for success at home and work.

Again, in the public conversation and the formulation of public policies regarding work and family, let us not forget that the happiest married mothers are those who are able to lean homeward, at least for a season in their lives.

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W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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