When both parents are working, juggling jobs and family responsibilities can put a strain on marriages. But trend data shows that working moms are good for the marriage and the kids.
After an initial rise in divorce rates in the 1970s, when women entered the workforce en masse, there has been a steady decline. Today, the lowest rates are in states with the higher proportions of working wives, says Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of the upcoming book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.
“When women first entered the workplace, there was an increase in conflict between men and women as they had to adjust to new realities, and that contributed to a higher divorce rate,” she says. “But today, there has been an extensive adjustment and men have quadrupled their time devoted to child care and tripled their time in housework."
Here are some other interesting findings that Coontz covers in her book, which may help women and men make decisions about balancing work and family.
1. Women need challenging work. Studies show that when both partners have access to challenging work, they have better relationships, better sex, they’re less likely to be depressed, and are more productive, Coontz says. But if work hours get too crazy, the rewards tend to reverse themselves. The key is finding a challenging job where you have some control over your work hours or some flexibility.
2. Examine the work hours of both partners. One of the biggest reasons women leave the workforce is because their husbands work long hours, not because they want to stay home with the kids.
“Couples need to think about whether it’s a good idea for a wife to quit her job so a husband can work 80 hours a week, or if there are other options,” Coontz says. Studies show that women often quit their jobs after they tried to adjust their own hours or their husband’s hours but were unsuccessful.
“Couples need to negotiate and do what’s best for everyone,” Coontz says. The answer may not add up to the highest income but it increases the odds of a happier marriage.
3. The downside of leaving the workforce. If a woman quits but would rather keep working, she has an increased risk of being depressed. Also, when women leave their job or cut back for an extended period of time, they fall behind and never catch up, a fact that many women don’t recognize, Coontz adds. The wage gap is more a function of parenthood than gender, widening when women become moms.
4. Working moms are good for dads and kids. When moms work full time, fathers tend to have more parental knowledge of their kids, meaning that they are more involved parents. Studies show that boys raised by hands-on fathers are more empathetic, and girls raised by hands-on fathers have higher aspirations and achievement goals.
5. Don’t feel guilty. When asked what they wanted more for their working parents, children didn’t say more time, they said less guilt and less stress. When they wanted more time, they wanted it from dad, not mom.
6. Stop being kid-centric. Today’s kid-focused parenting may not be ideal after all. Women who work often feel they’re not spending enough time with their kids so spend every non-working moment with them.
But working moms today actually spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home moms did for first 70 years of the 21 century, Coontz says.
The marriage (and by default, the kids) has become a casualty of that. One study found that between 1980 and 2000, there was a sharp decline in the amount of time spouses spend with each other and that decline was associated with a rise in marital distress, Coontz says.
But one of the best predictors of how well kids turn out is how strong the marriage is. Try to resist over-scheduling your kids so you’re not dividing and conquering on the weekends, limiting your time together. And get a babysitter (or grandparent), so you can go on more frequent dates (ideally with another couple).
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She has authored several health books, including "Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility." Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.