The grass always appears to be greener on the other side of the white picket fence. Feminists say that stay-at-home moms are more likely to be depressed, while neo-traditionalists say working moms are unhappy.
The feminists assert that being home alone with the kids leads to social isolation-an important factor in depression. Their opponents counter that employment is stressful. How is not depressing to be at work worrying all the time about the kids?
Whoever is right, let's not forget the implications for the children. Growing up with a depressed mother means you are at risk for a variety of problems-from becoming depressed yourself, to ADHD, substance abuse, and psychopathology, to name just a few.
So who is doing it right? The June Cleavers or the Miranda Priestlys (The Devil Wears Prada) of the world?
As in so many things psychological, it depends, says "Working Mothers, Stay-At-Home Mothers, and Depression Risk" by Margaret Usdansky and Rachel Gordon in a report for the Council on Contemporary Families.
They write that the risk of depression "depends on mothers' preferences and on their job quality." If you want to stay home-and you can afford it-your risk for depression is indeed low, but if you would rather be at work, the risk significantly increases. And if you want to stay home, but you're forced to work at a low-quality job, your depression risk is the same as those at home who would rather be working.
For moms who are working, depression risk depends on the quality of the job, and "this can even trump women's preference." If you prefer to work but are stuck in a dead-end job, you're at higher risk. But if at work you're mistress of the universe, you're less likely to be depressed, even if you would rather be with the kids.
To some extent, this study, which was based on interviews with more than 1,000 families, demonstrates that frustrated desire-whatever it is-puts us at risk for unhappiness and depression. As the authors write: "The study is also important because it reveals the inaccuracies of arguments that all women should work for pay or that all women should stay at home. It's not as simple as these one-size-fits-all arguments suggest. The actual situation, desire, and job quality all matter. Although our study could not measure why women chose to work for pay or not, it is clearly important for mothers of young children to consider their own desires when deciding whether to seek a job."
They also point to these policy implications. Quality jobs should be provided for those who don't want to work but have no choice. In fact, a high quality job would lower depression risk whether you want to work or not. But since a high-quality job may be a pipe dream for many or most, at least have mental health support systems in place for those at low-quality jobs or those who want to work but can't find a job at all.
And forgive me as a man on Mother's Day for this question: What about the depression of men in low-quality jobs who might-if they stopped to think about it-be happier at home with the kids? What's good for the goose, might be good for the gander. So let's take a gander at that.
My book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures In Eldercare(Avery/Penguin, 2009), was a Finalist for the 2010 Connecticut Book Award. Click here to read the first chapter It provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents--all to the accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking, calls it "A book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."