The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Long-Lived American Women—Marriage and Motherhood

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Since feminists captured the citadels of American culture in the seventies, they have ceaselessly promoted a life script for women that makes marriage optional and easily terminated and makes motherhood (likewise optional) a burden women will largely outsource to a daycare center while they pursue their career aspirations. These feminists have tirelessly assured one and all that this new life script gives the women who embrace it a fuller life. But can a fuller life be lived in fewer years? The question demands an answer in light of a study recently completed by scholars at Boston College and Harvard University concluding that in recent decades the American women enjoying the greatest longevity have not been living by the feminist script. Rather, the longest-lived women in America have been those who have forged enduring marriages and who have devoted themselves to full-time motherhood for a number of years while their children were young. 

Intent on analyzing the relationship between the various combinations of social roles that women assume and their longevity, the authors of this new study parse mortality rates after age 55 for 7,536 American women born between January 1936 and February 1956, rates then correlated with these women’s earlier social roles. These data indicate that the women who have lived the longest are not the ones who have avoided marital and family roles. Quite otherwise. As the researchers weigh the likelihood of premature death for women with different social profiles, they find that “married women out of the workforce when their children were young were at lowest risk.” 

The women identified by the researchers as those who faced the highest risk of premature death were those that took on the responsibilities of motherhood but lived their lives outside of the role of wife. “Women spending most of their adult lives as single mothers (working and nonworking),” report the researchers, “were at greatest risk of dying during [the study period].”  

The size of the longevity advantage enjoyed by married mothers who stayed at home while their children were young becomes quite discernible when the researchers calculate the age-standardized mortality rates (ASMRs) for all the social profiles of the women in their study. The ASMR for married mothers who stayed at home “for several years” while their children were young came in at 48.5 per 1,000; that for married mothers who were out of the paid workforce “for many years” to care for their children was an almost identical 50.5 per 1000. The ASMR for mothers never out of the paid workforce jumped to 60.4 per 1,000, very close to that for (mostly single) women always in the paid workforce but never in the maternity ward (58.96 per 1,000), and slightly lower than that for married mothers never in paid employment (66.82 per 1,000).    

The mortality rate jumps markedly among unmarried mothers: among single mothers regularly in paid employment, the A[ge]S[tandardized]M[ortality]R[ate] came in at 83.1 per 1,000, and for single mothers not employed, it skyrocketed to 121.5 per 1,000.

As the researchers survey the gaps in mortality rates separating the various groups of women, they concede that “not all differences were statistically significant.” But they do highlight the statistically significant differences separating all single mothers from the two longest-lived married-mother groups. As the researchers remark, “Single nonworking mothers had the highest A[ge]S[tandarized]M[ortality]R[ate], significantly higher than all other groups (P < .01), followed by single working mothers, whose mortality rate was significantly higher than the 2 lowest-mortality groups (P < .01),” groups made up of married mothers who had delayed out-of-home employment for “several years” or for “many years” to care for their children.  

In their findings on the elevated mortality rates among single mothers, the researchers see fresh evidence that “health impacts of prolonged single motherhood may continue past active childrearing.” 

Because healthy women are simply more likely than sickly peers to marry, to have children, or to be employed, the researchers admit that they cannot categorically rule out the possibility of a “selection” bias in their findings. That is, they admit the possibility that their findings reveal no more than the distinct initial healthiness of women who find spouses, bear children, enter employment, and finally live longer than their initially not as healthy peers, who take on fewer social roles and end up living shorter lives.  

But the Boston College and Harvard scholars appear reluctant to endorse a selection-bias explanation of their findings. They point to “research [that] suggests that causation may play a stronger role than selection in explaining associations between work–family status and health.”  That is, certain work-family life tracks appear to cause those who move along these tracks to enjoy better health (and longer life) than do those who move on different work-family tracks. And the work-family tracks that seem to yield the most favorable longevity outcomes were those in which women take on the role of wife, add that of mother, and finally, some years later (when their children are older), add that of employee.  

In their summary, the researchers assert, “We found that mortality rates were generally lowest for those simultaneously combining the 3 roles of mother, spouse, and [employed] worker.” But readers may well blink at the curious adverb simultaneously—and then wonder if the pressure of political correctness has not made the researchers loath to acknowledge directly that their study has actually demonstrated that American women enjoy the best chances for long life when they take on the roles of wife and mother but delay out-of-home employment for some years, until after their children are older.

A married mother who absents herself from paid employment for “several years” or “many years” to devote herself to child-rearing may be departing from the approved feminist script. But she may thereby be giving her children the best possible beginning in life and herself a long life as a grandmother.

(Erika L. Sabbath et al., “Use of Life Course Work-Family Profiles to Predict Mortality Risk Among US Women,” American Journal of Public Health 105.4 [2015]: e96-e102. Web.)