The M.D.: What science says about working moms, and what the heart says


If you ask my 10-year-old son, he’d tell you that I’m not a “real doctor.” His point of reference is my husband, David, a surgeon who usually leaves the house before 6 and works 12-hour days.

Most mornings, while David is at the hospital preparing for the operating room, I’m home making breakfast for our kids or packing lunches for school. In the late afternoons, while David is wrapping up office hours, I’m busy driving my son to soccer practice or overseeing his homework.

It wasn’t always this way. Throughout medical school and residency, I worked as hard — if not harder — than my husband. But all of that changed 17 years ago with the birth of my first child, when I decided to work less and mother more.

Deciding to scale back at work wasn’t easy. Like many women in my situation, I was torn. I wanted full-time work and full-time family; I didn’t want to sacrifice on either front.

And I didn’t know what would be best for my family and me.

So what’s really optimal for mother and child? It’s a question people have been grappling with, and psychologists have been trying to answer, for the last 50 years.

According to a 2009 Pew Center survey, 82% of men and women think young children are better off if their mothers don’t work outside the home or work only part time. They tend to believe that moms are better off too: 38% felt that the ideal situation for mothers with young children was not to work outside the home and an additional 44% thought that part-time work was the way to go.

As far as the science goes, here’s what we know so far.

Numerous studies have examined the effect of maternal work on children’s behavior and academic performance; others have looked at its effect on their physical and emotional health. The results of these studies have been inconsistent. Some suggest that children are more likely to have behavioral problems and suffer academically if their mothers work; others conclude that they’ll be just fine.

Searching for more definitive answers, researchers at UC Irvine combined the results of 69 different studies on the topic. Their findings, published by the American Psychological Assn. in 2010, were reassuring. With few exceptions, children whose mothers returned to work when they were young fared just as well as those with stay-at-home moms.

“The only negative effects were found with very intensive, full-time employment early on,” says Wendy Goldberg, a professor in the department of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. “We have to look at other factors that affect child achievement and behavior. Maternal work isn’t the whole story by any means.”

The effect of working on the health and well-being of mothers themselves has gone largely unexamined —until recently, that is. In December, psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Greenboro reported that mothers who work tend to be just as healthy — and, in some cases, healthier — than those who stay at home when their children are infants and toddlers.

The study, which appeared in the Journal of Family Psychology, used data collected from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development; it included interviews with more than 1,300 mothers during their children’s first 10 years of life.

Mothers who worked reported better overall health and fewer symptoms of depression than women who stayed at home. And those employed full time appeared to fare just as well as their counterparts working part time.

Perhaps the best news for mothers who work comes from a 2008 Pew Research Center report on social trends. Thirty-six percent of working moms said they were very happy with their lives — the exact same percentage as stay-at-home moms reporting so. Working mothers were also just as likely as stay-at-home moms to say they were very satisfied with their family life.

I’d have to say that things worked out for me. Financially, I was lucky enough that working less was an option. And professionally, I was fortunate enough to find a part-time job that was challenging and fun.

It hasn’t always been easy. Juggling work — even part-time work — and children can be stressful. And staying home with kids is no walk in the park. Sometimes just the thought of cooking another meal or driving to another after-school activity is enough to make me want to redo my résumé.

But then my son thanks me for helping him practice spelling or my teenage girls sign off Facebook long enough to tell me they love me and I’m back in the mommy game.

Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles.