June 8, 2011 -- Between juggling kids, career, housework and husband, it would seem the life of a working mom would make for a strained marriage, but the opposite may be true, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Among couples in the early years of their marriage, couples in which the wife continued to work after their kids were born reported higher marital satisfaction than their stay-at-home counterparts.
For Sarah Kimmel, 32, of Lehi, Utah, even continuing her career from home was problematic for her marriage once their kids were born.
"I used to work from home and was miserable," the organization blogger and software company employee said. "My husband never stepped up because I was there to do it (even though I was technically on the clock). It would make me mad at him and frustrated from the lack of help."
Now that Kimmel works outside the home, however, her husband has taken on a more equal share of the duties and even plays with the kids more, which Kimmel said has relieved the tension she was feeling in her marriage.
Though many factors feed into why working mom may make happier wives, researchers said that scenarios like Kimmel's were likely typical: When the wife works outside the home, the husband has to pitch in more with kids and housework, and marital relationships benefit from the more equitable division of labor.
"The research repeatedly shows that when husbands help more with childcare, wives are happier. We think that may be part of what's going on here," said Ben Karney, professor of social psychology at UCLA and co-author on the study, which was published in the May edition of the Journal of Family Psychology.
The Dual Working Couple Dilemma
The long-standing trope of the working mother is that in an attempt to "have it all," she barely has time to breathe, never mind nurture her love life, but Karney's study suggests that this might not always be the case.
"People talk about work and marriage in two different, contradictory ways: On the one hand, people talk about work and family conflicting ... every hour at work is an hour not spent on family and relationships. The other viewpoint is that a satisfying work life can enhance relationships, because you come home revived and ready to participate in family life. So which is right?" Karney said.
Researchers, including Karney and partner researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, questioned 169 couples over the course of the first four years of marriage, and for a third of them, the first few years of parenthood, in order to find this out. They looked at a particular subset of working couples: those who were college educated and reported being pretty happy with their jobs.
When it was just the two of them, they found that heavy workloads didn't hurt the marriage. In fact, the more hours the husband worked, the happier both spouses were, probably because at this point in the marriage, working hard is seen as an investment in the couple's future, researchers noted.
But when kids were thrown into the mix, everything changed. Hard-working husbands were now seen as negligent fathers and spouses, putting many of the marriages on the rocks.
Separate, but Equal -- In Marriage?
"Husbands now have three things they have to be: workers, husbands and parents. If you don't have kids, working hard is totally consistent with being a good husband. If you have kids, working hard takes away from something you're supposed to be doing: helping to raise your kid," Karney said.
Once a baby is on board, researchers found that the harder the men worked, the less satisfied both partners were with their marriage. Oddly enough, the opposite held true for women: The more hours new moms worked at their job, the happier both spouses were with the marriage.
While the authors postulate that this marital satisfaction stems from dads being forced to pitch in more frequently, there are likely other factors at play here, says Dave Greenfield, psychologist and founder of the Healing Center, LLC in West Hartford, Conn.
The study looked at women who were more likely to be career-oriented in the first place, so allowing the mother to continue working would contribute to her sense of identity, self worth and stimulation, he says. She wouldn't have to completely reinvent herself as a stay-at-home mom.
Elyse Bender-Segall, 32, of Livingston N.J., said work was too integral a part of who she is to give up. She owns a public replations firm, PR Revolution, and was back in the office six days after her now 10-month-old son Madden was born.
"I wouldn't have been happy staying at home," she said. "I feel like if I took a poll of women I know, the ones who are happily married are the ones where the women work."
Because her husband also works full time, the couple has a live-in nanny, but Bender-Seagall says the time spent at their respective occupations allows the couple to really devote themselves to their family life in the evenings.
This concept of guarding each partner's distinct life within a marriage may also be at play in Karney's findings, Greenfield said.
"Couples with distinct identities have potentially happier marriages because they are not revolving their lives solely around each other. Dual careers are great for that because they're required to have that separation" -- as long as you can juggle those two careers along with other demands, like kids, he said.