Should Moms Work or Stay At Home?

Like Tae Bo and Beanie Babies, the Mommy Wars are so 1990s. But ask any mom (or anyone, for that matter) whether it’s better for moms to work or stay at home, and you’ll likely get a strong and sometimes emotional answer. This week on the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals what the science says about moms working versus staying home.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #73

Ask the question, “Is it better for moms to work or stay at home?” to any group of moms, and you’ll find some strong opinions. Surprisingly, you’ll also find that each group is both insecure and proud in its own way.

Working moms often talk about the guilt of not being around, and the pride they take in their work, their identity as a professional, and their multiple hats. Stay-at-home moms talk about feeling devalued, but are simultaneously proud of investing in their children and their contributions to their families, schools, and communities.  

In terms of numbers, working moms are in the majority. In the U.S., 71% of moms with kids young enough to live at home hold a job other than “mommy.” And in a whopping 40% of households with kids, mom is either the only one bringing home a paycheck or else making more than her partner.

At the same time, however, a growing number of moms are staying home with their kids. After a low point in 1999, with 23% of moms staying home, trends show that the ranks of stay-at-home moms are swelling.  

To complicate matters, even though most moms work, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey finds that the majority of Americans (60%, to be exact) think that kids are better off with a parent at home full-time.  

So, what’s the answer? Turns out there is science to support all moms—working or at home. Let’s take a look at each side.

The Benefits of Stay-at-Home Moms

A 2013 study showed that children benefit academically when a parent stays home. The study crunched numbers from Norway, which has two policies Americans can only dream about: subsidized, high-quality national daycare and a one-year maternity leave.

In 1998, Norway’s government started another drool-worthy program called “Cash for Care,” which gives families with kids under age three a generous payment to opt out of national daycare. This, of course, means that someone would have to stay home with the toddler. This might be mom, dad, grandma, or a family friend.  

For the study, the researchers focused not on the toddler, but on his or her older school-age brothers and sisters. The researchers analyzed the 10th-grade GPA and found that kids in families that opted out of daycare did better in school. The effect wasn’t huge, but it was significant.

And when the researchers dug around for what caused the bump in grades, they concluded the academic improvements were driven by the subset of families where, in response to the payments, a parent (overwhelmingly mom) left the workforce to stay home.

The Benefits of Working Moms

A 2014 study demonstrated that working seems to be better for mom. The researchers found that new moms who return to full-time work after their first baby and stay in the workforce have significantly better health at age 40 than those who work part time, move in and out of the workforce, or stay at home.

But that’s mom—what about the kids? Enter a new study from Harvard Business School that looked at both moms and kids—50,000 people across 25 countries, to be exact.

The study found that daughters of working moms stayed in school longer, were more likely to be supervisors at work, and earned more money than daughters of stay at home moms.  In the U.S. specifically, daughters of working moms earned 23% more.

As for boys, the study found that grown-up sons of working moms spent more time on housework and taking care of their own kids. In the U.S., specifically, dads who had working moms spent seven and a half more hours per week taking care of their own kids than dads with stay-at-home moms.

In sum, women who grew up with a mom who worked did better in the workplace, and men who grew up with a mom who worked contributed more at home.

But let’s not turn this into mom versus mom. Rather than thinking about the original question: is it better for moms to work or stay at home, let’s think about it from the kids’ perspective.   

Studies consistently find it’s not who takes care of the kids, but the quality of care that makes a difference. Indeed, it seems that if bad childcare is what allows mom to work, it may not be worth it, but if a kid is parked in front of the TV at home with mom, that’s not going to work either.

Whether it’s mom, dad, a beloved nanny, a skilled daycare worker, or a loving grandma makes less difference than making sure your child knows he or she is loved, safe, responded to, and actively engaged.  

Bottom line, it’s not about the two groups fighting to claim the title of “mom.” In this society, where motherhood is equally put on a pedestal and dismissed, let’s agree that “mom” is a woman who contributes—whether economically, domestically, or anything in between—to their family’s life and to their children’s well-being.  

What's your take on working versus stay-at-home moms? Post any comments over on the Savvy Psychologist's Facebook page.


Cohn, DV, Caumont A. 7 key findings about stay-at-home moms, Pew Research Center. Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/08/7-key-findings-about-stay-at-home-moms.

Wang, W, Parker K, Taylor P. Breadwinner Moms, Pew Research Center. Available at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/29/breadwinner-moms/

Bettinger, E., Hægeland, T. & Rege, M. (2013). Home with Mom: The effects of stay-at-home parents on children's long-run educational outcomes. Discussion Papers No. 739, Statistics Norway, Research Department.

Frech, A. & Damaske, S. (2012). The relationships between mothers’ work pathways and physical and mental health.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 53, 396-412.

Note: the Harvard Business School study is as yet unpublished, but you can find information about it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/upshot/mounting-evidence-of-some-advantages-for-children-of-working-mothers.html?abt=0002&abg=0&_r=0

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.