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Well-being for Working Mothers

written by Frawn Morgan 18 June 2018

Frawn Morgan, MAPP '17, followed a 4-decade career in real estate development and institutional finance with education, research, and writing on how to raise well-being in working mothers. Her doctoral research at Northeastern University included an intervention designed to mitigate the negative impacts of maternal guilt.

Visit Frawn's website, Well-being for Working Moms. Her other Positive Psychology News articles can be found here.

Martin Seligman is a force. He is a force for change, a force in positive psychology, and a force to be reckoned with. As a student in his Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at Penn, I was in awe of him. In October 2016, I asked the question whether there was a correlation between depression in adolescents and whether their mothers worked outside the home. I felt singled out when he responded, “Someone really should investigate that.” I knew he had thrown down the gauntlet.


The gauntlet thrown down

I pick up the gauntlet

I had been a mother who worked outside the home. Beginning 3 weeks after my oldest was born in 1977, and with the exception of 2 years when I chose to home school my younger two children in grade school, I had worked continuously. That’s roughly thirty years as a working mother of 3 children who were, between the oldest and youngest, 13 years apart. One of my children struggled dramatically with depression during adolescence, and the other two may have struggled as well, just not in an obvious way. So this question was important to me personally. It was also important to me as I contemplated my encore career supporting working mothers in their quest for well-being.

Like many working mothers, I spent years on the bottom on the career ladder. While I was a single mother, I worked as a bookkeeper by day and bartender by night. I worried I wasn’t spending enough time with my son, even though he was cared for by relatives and loving friends. I worked diligently through the challenges of climbing the ladder in the male-dominated field of real estate development, with my efforts resulting in achieving ever more responsible senior management and executive roles, culminating in my role today as the managing partner of my firm.

By the time I got to MAPP, I wanted to find a way to mine my work experience for gems that I could use to help other working mothers. Seligman’s gauntlet fit nicely into that goal.

Where on the career ladder?

How did people around me respond?

My question was not a popular one. Many of my classmates were unhappy with my choice of topic, secretly fearing that I might find a correlation that could derail the hopes of women who want both to work and to have children. Seligman acknowledged that this was a challenging and unpopular topic, even telling me one afternoon that I could “expect to be crucified.” Even so, he never let me off the hook and continued to prod me to investigate the correlation, which he strongly believes exists.

Seligman was challenging me to investigate whether or not children of working mothers are predisposed to depression because he has a historical interest in attachment theory. He is not alone. I found several studies that speculated on similar themes, several listed in the reference list below.

What was the search like?

I started delving into the literature only to come up empty. There were no studies to examine this correlation, and scant longitudinal data to support any reliable form of analysis. I was stuck and frustrated. I had made the commitment to investigate this for my capstone project, and I kept hitting dead ends. I spoke with several researchers including legends in the field of adolescent mental health and family dynamics, and still came up empty. I had more than one revered psychologist tell me no correlation existed. I persisted, determined to find something that I could write about.

I read everything I could find on depression in children whose mothers worked. I interviewed working mothers I knew. I examined the work of several noted psychologists on family dynamics.

What did I find?

Working mother and child

What began to emerge was something I had not expected. It appeared that children of mothers with rewarding careers were actually doing quite well, according to Bianchi, Wills and Bauer. While the children seemed to be doing well, the working mothers also seemed to be doing better than might have been expected, finding a sense of meaning and accomplishment in their work that had a positive impact on their well-being. The children of these working mothers seemed to benefit from their mothers’ well-being, even though their mothers were putting in 8 (or more) hours on the job and away from them.

I did uncover a dark side, however. Children with mothers who are depressed, working or not, are at a much greater risk for adolescent depression. The really disturbing part is that maternal depression is rising.

I had found a correlation; it just wasn’t exactly the correlation I was expected. There is a well-documented correlation between maternal depression and adolescent depression described by a number of researchers.

Now What?

With maternal depression on the rise, I decided to concentrate my research on how working mothers were dealing with the stresses of their multiple roles and how the children of working mothers were actually faring. This wasn’t the study Seligman was hoping I would do, but it did fit nicely into my personal goal of increasing well-being for working mothers.

Seligman recently reminded me that I didn’t do the study we first talked about that afternoon in October. To me, it was impossible to do that analysis with the level of integrity I felt it deserved, due to a lack of existing data and a very real lack of time. It was, after all, a capstone and I had a finite amount of time and energy. I remain committed to using my education along with my thirty years’ experience as a working mother to understand how working affects the well-being of mothers and to develop tools to help working mothers cope on a day-by-day basis, or even a minute-by-minute basis.

Now on to making a difference

If I were thirty, I would make understanding the connection between working mothers and adolescents with depression the focus of my doctoral research and career, but at the encore stage I want to cut to the chase! Well-being for working mothers now!


If I can, even in a small way, help working mothers find well-being on a daily basis and thus ameliorate their risk for depression, then I can mitigate, even if only in some small way, the depression risk for their children.

One thing I knew as a working mother was that there was never enough time in the day to do everything I wanted or needed to do. As a result, I didn’t make time for my personal well-being. I don’t think I was clinically depressed, but I may have been dealing with chronic depressive symptoms for as many as thirty years. Anything I can do to change that experience for working mothers today is my focus.

What I learned during my MAPP experience is there are simple mechanisms that working mothers can deploy to improve their daily experience. To me, that is incredibly exciting! I am developing simple tools to share with working mothers everywhere, and in doing so, help them find well-being and share these gifts with their children, energizing a cycle of well-being that protects both working mothers and their children from the risk of depression. I plan to launch a web site soon with

Thank you, Seligman, for throwing down the gauntlet and challenging me to explore these critical questions. There is still much work to prevent maternal and adolescent depression. If my small part helping working mothers find well-being improves the experience of even one working mother, I will consider my efforts successful.

My site, wellbeing4workingmoms.com, has just been launched. Please visit to learn about the hacks I’ve mentioned.


Morgan, F. (2016). Having it all – Career, Motherhood, and Emotionally Healthy Children: Helping Working Mothers Protect their Children from the Risk of Depression. MAPP Capstone, University of Pennsylvania. Abstract. Complete paper available on request to the author.

Morgan, F. (various dates). Articles on well-being for working women posted on LinkedIn.

Barnett, R. C. (2004, May/June). Women and multiple roles: Myths and reality. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12, 158-164. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10673220490472418

Barnett, R. C., & Baruch, G. K. (1985). Women’s involvement in multiple roles and psychological distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(1), 135-145. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3541.49.1.135

Bianchi, S. M. (2011, November). Family change and time allocation in American families. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 638, 21-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0002716211413731

Garber, J. (2006). Depression in adolescents: Linking risk and prevention. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 31, S104-S125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2006.07.007

Goodman, W. B., Crouter, A. C., & FLP Key Investigators (2009, July). Longitudinal associations between maternal work stress, negative work-family spillover, and depressive symptoms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 58, 245-258. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2009.00550.x

Holmes, E. K., Erickson, J. J., & Hill, E. J. (2012). Doing what she thinks best: maternal psychological well-being and attaining desired work situations. Human Relations, 65, 501-522. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0018726711431351

Liss, M., Shriffrin, H. H., & Rizzo, K. M. (2012, October). Maternal guilt and shame: The roles of self-discrepancy and fear of negative evaluation. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22, 1112-1119. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10826-012-96873-2

Luecken, L. J., Suarez, E. C., Kuhn, C. M., Barefoot, J. C., Blumenthal, J. A., Siegler, I. C., & Williams, R. B. (1997, July-August). Stress in employed women: Impact of marital status and children at home on neurohormone output and home strain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 59, 352-359.

Pound, A., Puckering, C., Cox, T., & Mills, M. (1988). The impact of maternal depression on young children. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 4, 240-252. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1987.tb00679.x

Schepman, K., Collishaw, S., Gardner, F., Maughan, B., Scott, J., & Pikles, A. (2011). Do changes in parent mental health explain trends in youth emotion problems? Social Science & Medicine, 73, 293-300. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.05.015

Sweeting, H., West, P., Young, R., & Der, G. (2010). Can we explain increases in young people’s psychological distress over time? Journal of Social Science & Medicine, 71, 1819-1830. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.08.012

Thapar, A., Collishaw, S., Pine, D. S., & Thapar, A. K. (2012, March 17). Depression in adolescence. The Lancet, 379, 1056-1067. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S01406736(11)60871-4

Wills, J. B., & Brauer, J. R. (2012). Have children adapted to their mothers working, or was adaptation unnecessary? Cohort effects and the relationship between maternal employment and child well-being. Journal of Social Science Research, 41, 425-443. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2011.10.004

Wolkind, S. (1985). Mothers’ depression and their children’s attendance at medical facilities. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 29, 579-582. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0022-3999(85)90066-2

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Gauntlet courtesy of John McCloy
Low on the career ladder courtesy of Instagram: @jbedrina
Working mother and child courtesy of GSCSNJ
MUM in the sand courtesy of Andreas-photography

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Jacqueline Boerefijn 18 June 2018 - 2:02 pm

It wasn’t mentioned in this article,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/17/why-dutch-bring-up-worlds-happiest-teenagers ,
but Ruut Veenhoven links the happiness of Dutch teenagers also to the parents (mostly mothers) staying at home the first years, so there develops strong secure bonding. Further on, parents do take time for their children, 50% of the working population works part-time. Mostly mothers, but the PAPADAG, a weekly fathers stay-at-home day is accepted in many companies.

Frawn Morgan 22 June 2018 - 8:07 am

Jacqueline – Thank you for the reference to this important study. I look forward to reviewing it.

Jacqueline Boerefijn 27 June 2018 - 7:53 am

More about the work life balance being beneficial foor teenage happiness.

Judy Krings 19 June 2018 - 7:44 am

Kudos to you, Frawn, for throwing open the doors to a topic about which so many of us women can relate. I remember my 2 year old son, crying when I had to leave home early to go to the hospital to see a suicidal client, “Mommy if me sick, will you stay home with me?” Gulp! Guilt. But I told him I would be back soon and to go into bed with Daddy. That the rest of the day would be us doing something together.

I was blessed with a working mother who had 3 jobs. Her role model was positivity. Quiet and humble, her gift to me was to explain her joy of working. To be upbeat. To be glad our bills were paid and we owed nothing to anyone. My dad worked 18 hour days to keep our small town newspaper running. I was alone often, but I saw how they loved what they did and how much they found joy in accomplishment. I am so glad Seligman added ACCOMPLISHMENT to PERMA. MEANING, too. That said, I did quietly wish one of them would have attended just one activity I was in at school. They never realized it mattered. I did not get depressed about it. But I told myself if I had a child, I would attend EVERY event that kid choose to explore. And I did! I think I was born an optimist and that helped me ward off any real depression. I did have anxiety, but not because my parents worked. It was because I was not good enough for my boyfriend’s country club parents. I felt that scorn loudly and clearly. So I achieved for me and to prove to the world I was OK. I smile as I type this as it took long enough.

Getting back to your questions. I did feel guilty when I became a mom the same time I was developing my clinical psych practice. I talked with other working Moms and they felt the same way. I know, for me, like my own mom, I was a better person when I worked. I kindly joked when folks asked, that my son was my “hobby.” He had my attention all the rest of the time, along with my hubby. But the nagging, “Is this my fault?” if he acted up, was there. I think the whole concept of balance is a faulty one. “There is no crying in baseball!” is a mantra I smile at now. And “Just do the best I can with what I am doing in this moment. Give 100% attention.” Real self-care was an oxymoron in my very active parenting days. But I tried to be aware of REBT’s Albert Ellis, “What am I telling myself about this issue? How am I choosing to react here? How can I re-frame this story?”

I took my son to the bakery and then to my office before school. Then my staff took him to school and picked him up after school. He knew I wanted him to be with me. He also learned by proxy a great deal about life. My staff adored him, and he had several moms at work while I saw clients. I know I was luckier than most to be able to do this.

I talked a lot with my son, and later to my two older step-kids. We dialogued. Both were depressed because their Mom had died in her 30’s. Gulp. We talked for years…Our family jelled and thank God for that. I would never try to replace their Mom, but I would listen and care and love them in a new way. Time and talking and authenticity were the gifts we gave to each other.

What I learned was to be open to my own self-talk and that of all 3 kids. To let them know ALL emotions were normal. They knew they were loved. They knew we always planned and accomplished fun times together. They knew we always would. They knew no matter what they had two parents who loved them. I did attend all their events and re-scheduled clients to do it. I was fortunate to have a clientele who understood. Yes, I might need to go in on a SAT a.m. to make up an hour or tow, but we talked about fairness to clients as well as ourselves. The kids always knew I was aware of their needs and that they mattered. Thanks, Chris Peterson for etching that into my soul. I also wanted to say to you Frawn, that you deserve a great deal of credit for choosing the research you need to do for yourself. I applaud you for that and also smile at Seligman’s nudge. I so enjoyed hearing about your banter. I hope you keep writing as you write from your heart. And it is a big one! Many thanks!

Helen 20 June 2018 - 12:43 pm

I admire you for allowing your moxie to lead you through this exploration. While I myself do not have children I am in awe of the stamina it must take to be successful in motherhood and a demanding career. I applaud this effort to enhance the lives of mothers and their children. Depression is so elusive and misunderstood sometimes. So glad someone picked up the gauntlet.

Frawn 22 June 2018 - 8:01 am

Thanks Helen! It’s been a challenging process, to be sure, but one that is leading to what I believe is a worthy result.

Frawn Morgan 22 June 2018 - 8:03 am

Thanks you Judy! It’s a topic very close to my heart and it is rewarding to research this and assemble strategies for working mothers that will help them lead more fulfilled lives and enhance the emotional health of their children.

Linda Schiavone 22 June 2018 - 9:57 am

Frawn, what a great focus for your passion and your research. Wellbeing for the working mother is something I am also passionate about. I love the angle that you chose to investigate, that the wellbeing of mothers affects their children whether they work outside the home or not. In writing my capstone on self-care for the caregiver (in my case, mental health therapists), I often thought about self-care for mothers, the oldest profession in the world, and the original caregivers. I am excited to read your writings on the topic, and signed up on your website. Missing my MAPP 12 colleagues!


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