Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.
Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.

When Being a Stay-at-Home Mom Is Not Really a “Choice”

The need for reliable, high quality child care.

Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public Domain
Source: Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public Domain

Years ago, when my own two kids were in middle and high school, I read a book by Pamela Stone and was intrigued by what she said about well-educated moms who stayed home raising kids.

In essence, she said that for many, if not most, of these women, this was not really a choice in the true sense of the word. It was a choice in the context of decisions already made on the family’s work-life balance; that is, as an aftermath to decisions that their partners or husbands had chosen for themselves.

In other words, many of these women had equally well-educated, professional spouses. When their spouses (usually husbands) elected to pursue their careers full time, often with long hours and much travel, they’d tell the wives that it was their choice, as mothers, to be employed or not. For too many moms, this was a rock-and-hard-place situation, and many decided to stay home. For some, this was because they wanted at least one parent to be around for the kids most of the time outside of school hours, and it was clear that this was not going to be a half-and-half thing with their spouses. For others, staying home was preferable to dealing with the ongoing stress and pressure of full-time work while trying to find quality child care (and keep it, there can be enormous turnover in good baby sitters and quality child care centers are expensive).

The latter stress I knew only too well, in my own career as a professor. When my kids were babies, they were in a wonderful day-care center with loving, experienced caregivers and a three to one ratio of infants or toddlers to adults. But there were so many of the dreaded phone calls: “The baby has a fever/threw up/or so on. Please come pick up.” In later elementary and middle school years, there were days of early school closings or late openings or cancelled school days for various reasons ranging from teacher in-services to snow days. Not to mention the weeks-long breaks, which, of course, were not paralleled by weeks off at our own offices. Most vividly, I remember the dread of summer months, trying to piece together different day camps for sports, creative activities, music, or anything remotely appealing to both kids (often, against fervent protests, “Not that, mom; it’s lame!”)

Yet, as an academic with relatively flexible hours, I was among the fortunate. There is no question that had I been in a job that did not allow for working from home, I could not have pulled off this career, and also been there for my children as much as I felt was necessary for me, personally.

So what effect might these issues have for moms who do not have such flexibility? In a recent study of over 2,000 moms, my colleague Lucia Ciciolla, student, Alex Curlee, and I looked at this question.

We compared four groups of moms based on:

  • Whether or not they worked outside the home
  • Whether their status was truly what they wanted.

For two of the groups, these dimensions were aligned, those who worked and wanted to work (Work-Want Work) and those who stayed home and wanted to (Home-Want Home). The other two were misaligned, moms who worked, but chiefly for the money (Work-Money); and those who were home, but really wanted to be working (Home-Want Work).

Overall, it was not surprising that the two aligned groups fared the best psychologically. In other words, moms in the Work-Want work and the Home-Want Home groups fared the best on multiple aspects of personal well-being.

Of the two misaligned groups, one clearly stood out as being the most unhappy: the Home-Want work group. These women reported the lowest levels of personal fulfillment and the highest levels of emptiness and loneliness. They also reported greater child adjustment problems and higher feelings of rejection toward their children.

At many levels, this makes sense. These were women who generally had college, if not graduate degrees. It’s not surprising, then, that they’d want to put their education (and possibly professional skills, for the many who quit jobs when they had kids) to good use. The words of such a woman resonate—she had a graduate degree at Stanford, but left her career when her husband’s job required him to travel Monday through Thursday on a regular basis. She spoke lightly, “Yup, that’s me: I’m that Stanford mom turned into soccer mom.”

Undoubtedly, some will be dismissive of child-care concerns among women whose family incomes are above the national median. And in response to any such dismissiveness, I would say, the lack of quality child care is an issue that affects all parents in the U.S. Reliable, quality child care can be very difficult to acquire, and is often a major constraint in allowing both parents to hold down jobs.

And this in fact is corroborated in our study. When women were asked why they were not working though they wished to, by far the most common response was: “I can't get decent child care.”

In short, our findings essentially showed that for women who wished to work but couldn’t because of child care issues, there seemed to be great costs to the women’s mental health. And as we know well, when mom isn’t happy, nor are those whom they tend.

My mentor in graduate school, Edward Zigler, has been an impassioned advocate for improved child care in America. One of his major arguments (which always made great sense to me, particularly once I became a mom myself) was that we should make better use of schools for quality child care outside of regular school hours, providing coverage to allow parents to get to work before school and pick up kids after work in the evenings. In all communities across the US, there exist many school buildings that remain unused for these hours. What we need is advocacy and effort to coordinate the use of existing community resources, to make this work for families who urgently need child care.

In the context of well-educated moms such as those in our study, here’s a thought: Perhaps the women themselves could pitch in to organize such child-care programs? I say this because in my two plus decades of working with high-achieving schools across the country, I’ve found that PTA moms have pulled off various ambitious initiatives ranging from major fund-raisers for a new school auditorium or computer lab, to sports travel trips across the country.

So, moms in high-achieving schools, why not come together toward designing and implementing high-quality child care in your own children’s schools? More likely than not, in any given community, there will be many parents with the various skills needed to do this, in areas ranging from human services and education to business management and fund-raising. And many would gladly offer their services pro bono, toward improving the quality of life in their own communities and for their own children. Importantly, in designing any well-utilized after-school programs, adults will have to consider carefully what the kids themselves see as fun and appealing (in a couple of creative cases I’ve seen in the past, parents held contests for students to design the programs themselves and then let the entire grade pick the winners).

In retrospect, I wish I had done something like this when my own children were young. Except that I was working at a full-time job with two kids, and had no reliable child care...


Ciciolla, L., Curlee, A., & Luthar, S. S. (2017). What women want: Employment preference and adjustment among mothers. Journal of Family and Economic Issues. Online first: DOI 10.1007/s10834-017-9534-7.

Stone, P. (2007a). Opting out?: Why women really quit careers and head home. Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Zigler, E.F., Finn-Stevenson, M., & Hall, N. W. (2002). The first three years and beyond: Brain development and social policy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zigler, E. F., Finn-Stevenson, M., & Stern, B. M. (1997). Supporting children and families in the schools: The School of the 21st Century. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67, 374-384.

Authentic Connections Groups for Mothers. See

About the Author
Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.

Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., is Chief Research Officer at Authentic Connections and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

More from Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today