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.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.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?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.
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/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
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