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Motherhood: Making Choices About Working

A good deal of research has been done on the options for working and childcare which can help you make an informed decision, but even with all the knowledge in the world, you still have to thread your way through a messy bunch of tradeoffs.

For instance, studies have found that mothers who work are healthier than mothers who do not.1 Sounds simple, right? But behind that headline, there's a more complex truth. Research findings are almost always about the averages of groups.2 Yet you are a person, not an average! If you read a statement like "mothers who work are healthier than those who do not," you might conclude, reasonably enough, that you will be healthier if you return to work. But the statement really means only that "the average mother who works is healthier than the average mother who does not." In fact, many mothers who do not work are healthier than many mothers who do. The crux is always individual: What's right for you and your family in your particular situation. Let's look at the details that have to be considered to come up with the answer.

The Benefits of Working
The many rewards of working start with the enjoyment and fulfillment you experience from the work itself. There could be the feeling that you are using an important capacity within yourself, like a technical or managerial talent. Working offers the satisfaction of accomplishing a specific ambition (e.g., to be a teacher), and some lines of work give you the sense that you are making a contribution to society beyond your family. Certain jobs or careers also have prestige or social status. Last and usually not least, there's the additional money a job brings. As Ann Crittenden has shown in her book The Price of Motherhood, our nation's laws and policies place economic burdens and risks on all mothers, but they weigh most heavily on those who stay home with their children.

There are also pluses for the children of a working mother. Some of the physical or psychological health benefits she enjoys from working will spill over onto them - like her feeling more fulfilled, or less cranky from being cooped up with a child all day. A second paycheck means more money to buy them things, like better food and health care, or enriching experiences. Childcare carries the benefit of time with other kids and caregivers, and some breathing room from mom.3 Then there are future benefits to a child if his mom works when he's little: by not stepping off the career track - especially the fastest ones - she will probably have a larger salary when he's older.

1Though this apparent benefit is inflated by other factors; for example, women who work are likely to be better educated, which is associated with better health practices and less illness. They also tend to have been healthier in the first place, since ill people are less likely to seek work. 2We're using the word average as a shorthand term for the various statistical measures of the central tendencies of groups. 3Though, in all fairness, this can be accomplished without childcare, through spending informal time with other children and parents. Nor does one need to work to get a baby-sitter or to put a child in preschool.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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