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 

Homemakers Are Happier

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When she wrote The Feminist Mystique in 1963, Betty Friedan claimed that the life of a full-time mother and homemaker confined women to a miserable existence. While media and academic elites continue to drink the Kool-Aid, an international team of sociologists finds that, all things being equal, married homemakers around the world are indeed not only happy but also significantly happier than their peers who work full time outside the home.

Granted, the standardized-mean difference between the two sets of wives in their most sophisticated model is modest (0.11), leading the researchers to caution that “homemakers enjoy only a small advantage.” Nonetheless, that small advantage is robust enough (p<0.001) to debunk any feminist assertion that women cannot find fulfillment without a career. Moreover, in none of the twenty-eight countries surveyed were wives who worked full time in the labor market significantly happier than their peers who were homemakers.

These aren’t the only findings that prompt the researchers to caution “against equating employment with satisfaction.” Drawing on data from the 2002 Family and Gender module of the International Social Survey Program representing more than 7,000 married women, Judith Treas of the University of California (Irvine) and her international colleagues also found that homemakers who work part time in the labor force are no happier than their peers who don’t work outside the home at all. In other words, the real happiness gap among married women is between those who work outside the home full time and those who are employed part time or not at all. (These findings confirm that labor statistics, which often group homemakers who have part-time jobs together with their career-oriented sisters, and not with homemakers out of labor market, can be misleading.)

In fact, being a homemaker appears to be the most reliable predictor of the happiness of married women throughout the study. As might be expected, family income, husband’s share of domestic duties, wife’s perception of fairness in the division of household labor, couple conflict, and family stress were also found to be related to the happiness of married woman. Yet controlling for these mediating variables, write the researchers, “exacerbates rather than eliminates the homemaker’s happiness advantage.” Nor did national differences in social spending, liberal gender ideology, per-capita GDP, and female labor-force participation rate eliminate the homemaker’s advantage. In general, higher measures of these factors in cross-national analyses only slightly reduced the disadvantage in happiness of wives who work full-time outside the home.

While Treas and her colleagues do not back away from their findings, nor attempt to spin the results, they nonetheless believe their study should encourage “future efforts to understand what about countries makes women’s full-time employment a more or less satisfying experience.” Not to read too much into this one sentence, but why not a call to understand the factors that make wives that devote their attention to the home (with or without part-time jobs) the happier breed? At least in the case of these homemakers, happiness does not place demands on the taxpayer in the form of higher social spending or daycare subsidies.

(Judith Treas, Tanja van der Lippe, and Tsui-o Chloe Tai, “The Happy Homemaker? Married Women’s Well-Being in Cross-National Perspective,” Social Forces 90.1 [September 2011]: 111–32.)