Study: Working Moms’ Balancing Act a Global One

by Liam Farrell | illustration by Kelsey Marotta ’14

After rushing from the office, then picking up kids from day care, dropping them off at soccer practice, cooking dinner and answering emails, a working mother would be excused for eye-rolling at a magazine cover or TV show asking: Is it possible for her to “have it all”?

It turns out, though, that American women may actually be closer to attaining the elusive balance of work and family life than some foreign counterparts, according to new research from UMD psychology Professor Karen O’Brien.

O’Brien teamed up with colleagues around the world to study how employed mothers in the United States, Israel and South Korea cope with work-family management and its relationship with depression. More than 700 women ages 24 to 56 were surveyed across the three countries, which vary greatly in terms of cultural makeup, gender roles and power distribution.

The research found no group of women was immune to the combined stress of work and family obligations—“Every woman in the study was struggling,” O’Brien says—but South Korea outpaced the other countries with the most depression and least support from spouses and employers. American and Israeli women had a higher rate of feeling enriched by their work and were less depressed. The study also found that the amount of spousal support played the biggest role in reducing distress.

O’Brien says this shows the difficulty in negotiating a rapidly modernizing society that has more traditional values. For example, women in South Korea are generally obligated to care for their in-laws and often take the blame if a child does poorly in school.

“Korean women live in a more patriarchal society,” she says. “There are added demands that create more feelings of being overwhelmed.”

O’Brien’s next step is to create a universal measure of what constitutes being a good mother across cultures and determine if that can predict whether women opt out of careers.

“Perceptions of ‘good mothering’ will play a role in women’s career decisions and vocational aspirations,” she says.


Kathleen Perrine

I am trying to locate Julie Quimby who has written a few articles with Dr Karen Obrien. Might Dr O'Brien know how I could reach her? I am working on my dissertation and would like to read more of Dr. Quimby's work. Thanks, Kathleen

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