Are Stay at Home Moms More Depressed?

Have you heard about a recent Gallup poll that concludes that stay at home moms experience more depression? As soon as I got wind of it, my immediate thought was, “Why, of course they do.”

(Note: This study is not the first of its kind. There have been several that came to a similar conclusion.)

That may be a surprising thought from a woman who has been a stay at home mom for 14 years. It may also be surprising that I’ve never actually experienced clinical depression. So why would I automatically agree with the study’s findings?

Because I believe it illustrates important principles about motherhood (and women in general) that perhaps our culture doesn’t readily acknowledge.

The study analyzed the results of 60,000 American women interviewed this year. It found that non-employed moms fared badly in terms of emotional health when compared to their peers. They experience more worry, more sadness, more stress, anger and depression. Low income stay at home moms fared the worst. - Why yes, I AM a stay at home Mom. How did you know? Did my need to drink my frustrations away, tip you off?

I don’t see the findings are designed to add fuel to the “Mommy Wars”. (If such a thing even exists. I think it’s something the media invented to sell magazines.) I see this survey as reflecting some important truths. Namely, the fact that women who happen to be mothers need a) intellectual stimulation b) challenging and rewarding work c) adult companionship d) spirituality in order to be happy. All people need this. Once our basic physical needs for food, clothing and shelter are met, we need something more in order to be happy.

Megan of the Happiest Mom illustrated this beautifully in a blog post about a Mother’s Hierarchy of Needs, in which she referenced (of course) Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. She puts it better than I ever could, so please take a moment to read her post.

Motherhood is glorified and elevated to Madonna status in our culture. It has a shiny halo around it. However, it’s mostly just lip service. Most people think that it’s best for women to stay at home with their children in the first years of their lives, but when push comes to shove, what do we as a culture DO to make this ideal easier to accomplish?

A whole lot of nothing.

When it comes right down to it, it’s very difficult for mothers to get the support they need to be well rounded, happy individuals in this country.

This isn’t true in much of Europe, where government policies actually put money where their mouths are. Better access to health care, better outcomes for birthing women and their babies, long paid maternity (and paternity!) leaves, in-home nursing care for postpartum women, social policies that support moms who work outside the home (like the shorter workweek of the French woman, government subsidized high quality child care, etc) and there are other examples. I don’t wish to get into a debate about politics because I don’t believe these problems will be solved in the current system.

I do wish to point out that the idea of the stay at home mom in a nuclear family situation is a very new idea. And it’s bad for a woman’s emotional health. Period.

In the not so distant past, every woman was both a stay at home and working mother. Women worked alongside their husbands to earn the family’s income. (The arrangement of the nuclear family is bad for both women and men, I feel.) And they traditionally lived alongside extended family, where they had the social support and companionship of other people. I’m not one of those people who insists everything was better in the good old days, because that’s simply not true. But I believe that many modern practices that have become common in our culture are antithetical to a mom’s well being.

As I stated earlier, I’ve never suffered from clinical depression. But I keenly remember the boredom, restlessness and even anxiety that accompanied my life with young babies and toddlers. I loved being a mom and didn’t want to return to work full time, but I was quite miserable sometimes. I think women are afraid to articulate or even acknowledge these feelings because they fear people will accuse them of not loving their children (I’ve seen women criticize other women on blog comments, saying this very thing.).

That’s ridiculous. I adore my husband, but I wouldn’t want to spend all day at home alone with him wiping his nose and butt, either. (If I did, I would probably experience caregiver stress, and nobody would criticize me for it or accuse me of not loving him.)

The social isolation I felt in my first couple of years as a mom was very difficult to endure. I was the first among my friends to begin having kids, and they all sort of just forgot about me. I didn’t want it this way, and I remember trying hard to reach out. But it was a little overwhelming trying to keep friends while taking care of a very high needs baby and sudden loss of income.

When my babies were little, I often invented reasons to leave the house just so I could interact with another person. One who wouldn’t poop on me, rub snot on my shirt, or demand something of me. I went to La Leche League meetings. In 3 counties. Just for the social interaction. Then I became a La Leche League leader so I could do something that felt challenging and rewarding. Something that other adults, my peers, would recognize as such.

I started little businesses (and finally, blogs and websites) so I could do something to keep from losing my mind. (By mind I mean intellect. I wasn’t going crazy, I was just going stupid.)  I remember counting down the minutes until my husband got home from work – which probably put an unhealthy demand on him because at the end of a long work day he was spent, and needed to retreat to his man cave. Yet I needed adult interaction, which produced a conflict. I remember having anxiety about when someone would wake up for a nap, desperate for a little recharge time. I visited my mother a lot, who thankfully lived close by during those early years.

Taking care of children and house full time involves a lot of onerous, repetitive tasks that nobody really enjoys. We do these tasks because they’re necessary, or maybe because noone else will do them. But I doubt any mentally healthy woman has ever looked at a mop and found a sense of purpose. We just try to put that spin on things in order to feel better about spending much of our lives on those duties. (Of course, moms who work outside the home accomplish these tasks too, but they’re better at prioritizing and outsourcing them.)

According to the study, low income women suffer the most.

That comes as no surprise. Being poor sucks. It increases stress levels and makes parenting far less enjoyable. Having enough money smooths out the rough edges of life. Even more interesting is this finding:

“Low-income stay-at-home moms are also more likely to say they have experienced daily worry and stress than low-income employed moms.”

No surprise here either – it’s an issue of power and control. If you’re in a bad circumstance, you usually feel better about your prospects and your life if you at least have some power over the situation. An employed low income mom has more control than a non-employed one. She’s probably also less likely to stay in an adulterous, abusive or alcoholic marriage if she has an income. Money gives you choices.

Let’s talk about the need for challenging, rewarding work for a moment. This is something all human beings need. We were created with the desire to see good things come from the work of our hands. This is why unemployed people are more depressed and more likely to commit suicide.

While being a mother is certainly challenging – I doubt any sane person would argue that – taking care of young kids can be mentally numbing. And the rewards are difficult to measure. Moms get paid in wet kisses and drool-y grins, and there is a lot of joy in parenthood, but it’s not enough. At least, not for many women I’ve known throughout the journey. I can’t think of a single mom who doesn’t have a “something else”… maybe it’s volunteer work, maybe it’s a part or full time job. Maybe it’s writing or art or … whatever.

The importance of the money you get paid to do work is not to be underestimated either. It’s a fact that money is how we reward productivity in our society. We say that moms are worth over $100,000 – but, ahem… I have yet to see a paycheck for my years of service. ;-) When my husband goes to work each day, he gets the self esteem boost of seeing his work completed (not undone in 5 minutes). He is praised by his customers. They buy him lunch, give him extra thanks in the form of tips, and at the end he gets payment. Nobody criticizes men for needing this. And nobody accuses a man of being a bad Father if he needs the self esteem boost of paid work.

If you asked a man to dig a ditch, then filled it up overnight, and asked him to dig it again the next day, he would likely go insane. This is a little bit like the life of a mom of young kids. Let’s face it. Children (and husbands) aren’t particularly good at acknowledging the work we do. The rewards aren’t as clear, and sometimes they don’t really come until decades later. “You’ll appreciate me when you have kids of your own!” Our kids don’t truly appreciate the sacrifices we’ve made for them until they’re parents.


Because of my choice to be a stay at home mom, I also put myself (and frankly, my children) at risk financially.  I touched on this on another blog when I wrote Work at Home Moms Aren’t Making the Feminine Mistake.

I know that by publishing this post I’m putting myself out there for criticism. That’s ok. I put my big girl panties on this morning. I’m just being honest. There are probably people who will skim this post not taking the time to think, or assuming inaccurate things about me or my history, or assume that I’m being defensive about my choices. When I’m not. I wouldn’t go back and make the decision to work full time outside the home. That’s not what I’m saying.

I’m saying that depression among stay at home moms is a real problem, and we need to figure out the reasons why so we can do something about it.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that by opening this dialogue, we can at least begin to address it. Maybe women will be a little more likely to share their honest feelings with each other (and their husbands) if they know that 60,000 women in a study agree with them.

To sum up:

  • I’ve been a SAHM for 14 years. Yet I agree with the findings of this study.
  • I think we need to be more aware of these issues and how we can help stay at home mothers avoid depression.
  • Moms who work outside the home are probably happier because they enjoy a sense of identity outside their relationships with their children, challenging, rewarding work and more respect from their peers.
  • Moms don’t need to apologize for not giving up everything they enjoy – including paid work – to raise their children. It means their mental health.

What do you think of studies that point to employed moms being happier than stay at home moms? Have you dealt with depression as a mom? How do you find a balance in your life between being a mom and being a person with needs of her own?


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14 Responses to Are Stay at Home Moms More Depressed?

  1. I’ve been really frustrated by the idea some of my friends and neighbors seem to have that motherhood is some kind of glorious martyrdom. Being a mom is hard enough. It means giving up some of the things you enjoy, physically giving of yourself to your children (especially if you’re nursing), planning your day around someone else’s desires, and frequently subverting your own needs. Why go looking for ways to make it harder by pretending what you want and need doesn’t matter at all?

    Maybe some women are better than I am, but I all of my attempts to be completely selfless for my husband and son have ended in my terrible depression. I’ve had to learn that a family is a balancing act of many different people’s needs and desires–including mine. Self-sacrifice is one thing, but choosing someone else’s needs over my own too many times makes me a less capable, loving wife and mom.

  2. Tiffany says:

    I completely believe that stay at home moms are are depressed. There is so much pressure to turn child raising and house management into your career and compete against other moms for best and most devoted mom (blogs help us do this even on an even broader scale now). I personally fell into the trap of letting my kids become my whole world and after 6-7 years of that I was miserable and my marriage was collapsing from spousal neglect. I didn’t pursue any IRL activities or friends. Then my oldest boy started having major behavior problems due to his autism and it started to seem like all my hard work was for nothing because my “perfect mothering” wasn’t effective. I wasn’t diagnosed with depression but I am pretty sure I would have been had I sought out the diagnosis.

    How I turned it around is kinda funny and something I never actually blogged about but it involved finding out my husband was making plans to leave me and getting so pissed off that I finally decided I needed a life of my own since I might very well be on my own soon. I started making myself top priority and felt better than I ever remember feeling. Once self care became priority the rest seemed to fall back into place and not be so unbalanced.

  3. carrie says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Tiffany. Sometimes thing have to get way out of balance before we see them clearly and make changes. I’m glad you were able to turn things around in time!

  4. carrie says:

    “I’ve had to learn that a family is a balancing act of many different people’s needs and desires–including mine.” – Indeed Alison! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Oh, that second cartoon made me LOL and want to cry at the same time. (You already know about me.) Your emphasis on “social isolation” is SO SPOT ON. Sometimes we feel so trapped, by the housework, by the chores and the babies and illnesses and the to-do’s we can or cannot cross of our lists. It can be so overwhelming at times.

  6. Danielle says:

    This is SO my life right now. We’re what you might call a lower income family and I often feel a sense of powerlessness when it comes to our finances. I’ll sit there and think ” there Must be some way for me to make money”, but at the same time, I’ve got a really high needs baby who doesn’t allow for much “mommy time”. It’s disabling sometimes. And definitely depressing.

  7. Carrie says:

    Danielle I understand that and have definitely been there in my life! It’s a difficult thing when you want to be with your kids full time but the finances are so tight.

  8. Carrie, I completely agree. I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home mom, a full-time working mom, and quite a few things in between. I went back to work part time for the money about 5 years ago, and was a little surprised to realize how good for me it was in other ways!

    New research coming out of the business and psychology sectors has been really enlightening for me: to be happy at work, people need to feel a sense of purpose, a sense of master, and to feel like they’re in control of their work. Stay-at-home motherhood can really kill one’s sense of autonomy, especially when the kids are little. In that light, of course stay-at-home moms are less satisfied with their work.

    Thanks for thoughtfully handling a sensitive subject. I’m glad to see it under discussion.

  9. carrie says:

    Thanks Anne.
    I was really nervous hitting publish on this post, because I didn’t want to come across as resentful, or negative of the choice to stay at home. I think we as a culture could do much to prevent depression among moms. I’m working on a post about what moms can do if they feel a chronic low mood. If you have any tips, I would love to include it.

  10. Laura says:

    I think that the study is right and wrong. Single, low income, unemployed Moms are more likely to suffer from worry, anger, stress, sadness and depression. Most people would in their circumstances. Married Moms with supportive husbands who have a decent income are another story. I am a work at home Mom. Yes, I work at home, but I don’t get a paycheck. I do get a happier, healthier, less worried, less stressed and depressed family thanks to the cleaning, shopping, gardening, cooking and many other small tasks that I do. I could not do these tasks very well if I were at a job all day. My family would suffer. I would be more stressed and depressed. Our relationships would suffer. I have never been more fulfilled, happier or healthier at any other time in my life. Most work at home Moms that I know are the same. They love having extra time to put towards their hobbies and personal interests. Some prefer to use the extra time to volunteer or make extra money. They have a network of friends and family for adult interaction and support. We have time to nurture rich relationships with our families, friends and God. I don’t think the study is very valid because there are so many variables that cause depression, worry and sadness and a job outside of the home is not a silver bullet solution.

  11. carrie says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Laura. It’s great when a SAHM doesn’t experience these negative emotions. It’s important to note that the study wasn’t an outsider looking in and reporting on women’s situations, it was **the women themselves** describing their OWN feelings. That’s a huge distinction. I for one won’t be discounting what women report about themselves.

    Low income employed women also fared better than low income unemployed women – whether they were married or not. Also important to mention.

    So the question is, what can we do about it? If one woman is happy and fulfilled as a SAHM, what advice and wisdom can she share? Instead of discounting the feeling of other women, how can she help them? :-)

  12. Candace says:

    I have been a stay at home mom off and on, but the longest has been three years now. we have a 7 year old girl and five and three year old boys. We also have a baby girl due in seven weeks. My husband works only three shifts a week. we definatly scrape by. all our money goes to bills, rent and groceries. I have dealt with depression and anxiety off and on since the birth of our first son. I would go to work but then found I would only get so anxious at work because I felt I wasn’t able to help with the home and children. I ended up walking out at 3am shortly after getting pregnant with our third, breaking down and bed ridden for over a month. The demand on a mother in media can suck the life out of a woman. It took me a few years after this, just recently to realize the world wouldn’t fall apart if I wasnt keeping the best home. Here in Canada there is help for moms. The govt does help our home financially through CCTB, or “baby bonus” which we use to pay our rent. its not always visible help, but its out there its just a matter of making people more aware.

  13. r austin says:

    I find this site really interesting, its american & im english but the issues are the same :-) ! I have been a single mum for a few months, though i felt my ex pretty much left me to everything from the word go, domestic & child related..even though he was around alot. i have a 2.5 yr old. Im at the ‘bottom ‘ rung of the ladder, in every way at the moment really. I am in social housing, on benefits, & live in an rather isolated rural village with no local freinds/ family or many opportuntites , plus the transport links are minimal ! This was a bit of a mistaken move as i was in a town i loved , in a newly done up flat, with people i knew around, but had a strong urge for greenery and a fresh start, so we moved out
    ( under some pressure ) here the first day of heavy snow in december, a month before i was due ! yes i totally get the depression sometimes very bad, & i have been racking my brains for a way to help myself and other mums with isolation , and depression & lack of MOTIVATION. I have a fantasy about starting up a family freindly cafe with breastfeeding comfy chairs, squishy sofas, nearly new stuff for sale and tons of local info for parents…but its the recession and of new bsuinesses 80% fold within 2 years…
    i manage by;
    1. taking high potency fish oils, these are mood enhancing but also good for mental ability( perfect for post partum effects ) better than anti depressants 2. hot bath every night with daughter followed by playtime in the bed while i listen to radio 4 3. lots of phone chats 4. internet time . Finally when my daughter was a baby ( & i did get help as my ex was around then ) i ran a succesful NCT baby group, a friday bumps and babes, which many grateful mums came to, it helped me feel less isolated , was a goal for the end of the week, and alot made freinds through it which was very satisfying ! Now im wondering about starting up an art group for toddlers/mums…

  14. sheri says:

    I am so going through everything ur talking about. I have an almost 2yr old and a newborn. At this time im supp to go back to work(I am the more financially sound person in our household) in 10weeks. I am a nurse and work 12hr shifts n the thought of having to go back in one way sounds great but in another sense I don’t want to. I felt I could hardly manage our household before withjust one child while working n it was tough to not be stressed. I think many mothers always have that instinct to be stay at home mothers and that’s how I feel right now but I also feel that strong depression with such a demanding toddler and nursing a newborn which on many days feels like all I do. So how to find time to go see friends or fam or do anything for myself is very difficult. And also the lack of motivation is def an issue. By the time u get up make food, nurse, get urself, toddler, n baby around, pick up alittle then ur exhausted. And even if I do have a few minutes, I feel like my brain just doesn’t function and I just sit there not knowing what to do. I totally feel everything u said Carrie. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

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