Study Examines Stress Levels in Working Mothers of Young Children

It does not always take a clinical diagnosis to realize what is causing psychological distress. Any working mother of young children is certainly very aware of the factors that create stress in her life. Raising young children can be quite demanding and can exhaust nearly all emotional and physical resources. Likewise, holding down a full-time job requires a commitment of time, effort, and mental and physical energy. For women who have professional and parenting obligations, the combination of dual stressors can be quite overwhelming. Juggling family time and career can increase cortisol levels and create mental health challenges for mothers that affect their productivity on the job and their parenting at home. Leah C. Hibel of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University in Indiana believes that the morning hours, a time during which working mothers must attend to their children’s needs and ready themselves for the workday, might be a ripe time for capturing stress levels and examining how these elevations in cortisol could affect tasks conducted throughout the day.

To gather this information, Hibel and her colleagues evaluated 56 working women with children under the age of 4. She assessed their cortisol awakening response (CAR) levels 30 minutes after they awoke on 4 consecutive days, two working mornings followed by two nonworking mornings. Hibel found that parenting stress resulted in elevated cortisol levels for all the mothers on workdays but not on nonworkdays. She also discovered that the participants with the most job and parenting stress had the highest cortisol levels on workdays when compared to mothers with only one form of stress. This can result in a depletion of emotional resources that could cause mothers to parent less effectively. In fact, some research suggests that parents who are emotionally taxed and highly stressed parent more harshly than parents with less stress. Hibel added, “The current findings highlight the importance of creating family friendly policies to reduce the mental, physical, and physiological burden of juggling work and family, especially for mothers with young children.”

Hibel, L. C., Mercado, E., Trumbell, J. M. (2012). Parenting stressors and morning cortisol in a sample of working mothers. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029340

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  • tori


    August 21st, 2012 at 4:51 AM

    I have done it both ways, worked full time and stayed home with the kids. A lot of stay at homers won’t like to hear me say this, but I honestly felt more stressed when I was at home all the time over how I felt when I was juggling a work day too. Actually I have felt the best since working outside of the home but part time hours. That has given me the chance to stretch my creative and professional skills but only doing that when the kids are in school. I still have the fortunate ability to stay home with them in the summer, school holidays, and be there for them every day after school. I know that not all moms have a work situation that flexible, but this is how it has worked out for me and it has been great.

  • Laurel G

    Laurel G

    August 21st, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    Don’t wish to offend anyone here, but I happen to think that children deserve more than being raised by a babysitter. I just feel that very strongly. I want to be the one that my kids want to see all day, me and their dad, and I think that it’s important to establish that stay at home role in their lives as long as you can. I know that there are families who cannot survive on only one income, but there are 1000s of work from home opportunities if you just get out there and look for them. Sure there are some days that are really stressful and I dream about a minute or two for only myself. And then I look at the precious gifts that I have been given, and they are priceless gifts, and then I wonder all over agin why I ever had that fleeting thought at all.

  • nate


    August 21st, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    The one thing that I find so interesting about these “mommy wars” as I see them, and I can say this as a guy as an outsider looking in, is how easy it becomes for women to point their fingers and blame one another for the things that each is doing wrong.

    maybe there isn’t one right or wrong answer, and that each family has to work out the situation that works the best for their own household. For some that might mean having a stay home mom or dad, or for another it might mean both parents work full time, or something in between.

    What works for you is no business of another, and I think that the best thing that can be done is to stop judging one another so much and focus on your own home and family and leave the others to make the decisions for themselves.

  • Eleanor


    August 21st, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    How are we supposed to pay the bills with just 1 person working in the home?
    Unless you are married to a doctor or a lawyer this is not a reality that most families can make work.
    Try not having enough money in the checking account to pay for groceries or household bills. Nw that’s stress.
    The sress I have when I work I can manage because at least I know that way that bills are paid and the kids are being fed.

  • The30PlusMom


    August 21st, 2012 at 7:19 PM

    I too have done it both ways. I was a stay at home mom for 8 years and then went back into the workforce full time when my youngest went to full day school. Honestly, I don’t think either way is easy. I really don’t know many stay at home moms with children in grade school and above that wouldn’t like to stick their hand in something. And for those you choose/have to work full time jobs, quite frankly I agree with the article; there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to keep up with all of the household responsibilities as well as give the kids the attention you want to give them. I recall many mornings leaving the house and feeling like I was going to have a heart attack by the time I got myself ready and got the kids up and out the door so they wouldn’t miss the bus and I wouldn’t miss a meeting (so I definetly can relate to the elevated cortisol levels). I also felt a tremendous amount of guilt for even leaving the kids for any small amount of time outside of work hours which made our world very small.

    But there was an upside. In addition to the obvious benefit of having a second income it was really nice being around people again. It was really nice contributing at an adult level. As a woman I definitely felt better about myself emotionally and intellectually and my kids no longer thought the only thing I could do was clean the house (that’s what my daughter told her teacher when she was asked what her mommy did!)

    I think mother’s experience periods of elevated stress regardless of whether they work inside or outside of the home. I wouldn’t call being a stay at home mother a walk in the park either. I think regardless of your work situation balance and organization is the key to a less stressful existence.

  • Ruth.L


    August 21st, 2012 at 11:56 PM

    Its never easy to be a working mom and especially when your child is too young.But let me tell you-there is something that can help!And that is help from the family.I was fortunate enough to have my husband’s mom take care of my little son while I had to work.

    Maybe its a cultural thing,being of Asian ancestry,but it really works in your favor to have support from the family.It is not uncommon to have a grandmother look after the child in out culture.I believe integrating the best practices from all cultures is thee way to go.

  • Dr. Carol

    Dr. Carol

    August 22nd, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    In my practice their are children whose parents both work and children who stay home with a non working parent. The children that I see who are the best adjusted are those with a non working parent but who also have the chance to engage with other children on a regular basis, from a Mother’s morning out program to pre school. But it always revolves around having one parent always there and available for them, as I think that this creates a level of security in these children that those with two working parents do not develop.



    August 22nd, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    There is only so much our minds and bodies can take.Motherhood is no small responsibility,being a full time job in itself.Try to cramp in another full time job and it is only asking for problems.That is the reason we have maternity leave in the first place(yes the organization cannot pay forever but that atleast shows the intent and understanding of the situation!)

  • grier m

    grier m

    August 22nd, 2012 at 1:59 PM

    Good grief, women are condemened if we do and condemned if we don’t! There is never going to be an easy answer to this age old debate. Some moms will handle it fine and others will have a breakdown. Some kids will adjust well and others will always want what they didn’t have. Make yourself happy, and I think that ultimately you will find that if you are happy with life, then the kids will be alright. They will adjust to the situation.

  • Sadie


    August 23rd, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    Stress? Believe me, if you have never been a stay at home parent you really don’t understand the concept of just how strong stress can actually be!

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