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To work or not to work: Mom's happiness rests on what she wants

June 21, 2017

New ASU research shows that among well-educated moms, when employment status is aligned with preference, well-being soars

The center of a mother’s life tends to be her children and her family, but if Mom is unhappy about staying home with the kids or about working outside the home, then she (and anyone close to her) may suffer, according to new research from Arizona State University.

In “What women want: Employment preference and adjustment among mothers,” published in the early online edition of the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, researchers studied more than 2,000 mostly well-educated mothers and considered their well-being in terms of not just whether they worked outside the home, but also if they wanted to work or not.

The study showed that the best-adjusted mothers were the ones who pursued the lifestyle they wanted.

Suniya Luthar

“It’s not about simply being employed versus being a stay-at-home mom that makes the difference,” said Suniya Luthar, an ASU Foundation Professor of psychology and leader of the research group. “We found that women who were living in sync with their own preference exhibited overall positive adjustment. Conversely, the ‘misaligned moms’ experienced considerable distress and unhappiness.”

In the study, the researchers examined the well-being of mothers in four groups: those who were employed and wanting to work (Work-Want Work); not employed and not wanting work (Home-Want Home); employed because they need the money (Work-For Money); and not employed but wanting to work (Home-Want Work). Overall, mothers in the first two “aligned” groups reported much better adjustment across multiple indicators than did the second two groups that are “misaligned.”

Mothers who regretted staying at home consistently fared the worst psychologically, exhibiting lowest levels of fulfillment, highest levels of emptiness and loneliness, and reports of greater child maladjustment and more feelings of rejection toward their children.

“It makes sense,” Luthar said. “For those women who wanted very much to apply their educational degrees and career skills at work, but for whatever reason needed to stay home, it’s understandable that they’d struggle with feelings of emptiness and lack of fulfillment.”

The reasons for not working in this group were clarified by Lucia Ciciolla, lead author of the article and former ASU student who now is an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University. A third co-author is Alexandra Curlee, an ASU student.  

“When the Home-Want Work group was asked about why they did not pursue work, the most common reason that they gave was the lack of appropriate child care,” said Ciciolla. “These data are important in showing that there are many mothers who would prefer to work but are unable to with associated ill effects on psychological and emotional functioning. We believe that for mothers to be successful in both career and parenting roles, there must be practical and structural support (appropriate child care and flexible hours) that makes it possible.”

The researchers also examined major factors associated with the well-being of mothers in the four different groups, and there was remarkable consistency in what seemed to matter most. 

“Findings across all four groups suggest that feeling emotionally supported is a fundamental need that is universal among mothers, regardless of their employment status,” Ciciolla said. “Unconditional acceptance and authenticity in relationships were consistently found to be important across multiple measures of maternal well-being.” 

In addition, friendship satisfaction emerged as a key factor in promoting life satisfaction and mitigating loneliness for the majority of mothers, and for stay-at-home mothers it was also consistently associated with fulfillment. Partner satisfaction was associated with few outcome variables outside of life satisfaction.

“The reality is that caring for children is emotionally and psychologically challenging work, so it is essential that moms get ‘refueled’ themselves,” Luthar explained. “Feeling emotionally supported and satisfied with friendships is critical for well-being regardless of one’s employment status or preferences on that front. All moms need to be nurtured themselves, and this must happen on an ongoing basis.”

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications

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June 21, 2017

ASU professor and colleagues suggest a new approach to scientific exploration that they call exploration telepresence

When Apollo astronauts on the moon spoke with Mission Control on Earth, there was a noticeable time gap between a statement from Tranquility Base and its immediate acknowledgment from Houston. The gap lasted almost three seconds, or 10 times longer than human reaction times would account for.

What was happening? The answer is simple: space. The moon orbits far enough from Earth that light (and radio) take 1.3 seconds each way to travel the distance. At exploration targets farther away, the delay increases; for exploring Mars, signals take between 5 and 40 minutes, depending on the varying distance between the two planets.

"During the Apollo missions, the astronauts were making scientific observations and relaying what they saw back to scientists on Earth. Both were collaborating on decisions about observations and which samples to collect and bring back to Earth to yield the most scientific value," said Kip Hodges, Foundation Professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

"This worked reasonably well for lunar explorations, but the time delay is likely to dramatically reduce the quality and scientific value of such collaborations in exploring faraway places like Mars."

So far, Hodges notes, fieldwork is being done remotely on Mars by scientists on Earth using robotic tools such as the Curiosity rover. But it's slow.

"Even though signals commanding observations and measurements take only minutes or tens of minutes to reach Mars, a single research activity on Mars, from command to data return, can take a day or more," he said.

In the June 21 issue of the journal Science Robotics, Hodges and collaborators Dan Lester at Exinetics and Robert Anderson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggest a new approach to scientific exploration that they call exploration telepresence.

"To the extent that much scientific research is a process where awareness drives action," the authors say, "the communications delay between humans on Earth and planetary exploration sites is limiting."

The ideal is to keep these delays, or "latencies," within the length of human reaction times. One approach is to have the astronaut scientists working directly on the surface of a planet. But landing humans and keeping them safe is an expensive and dangerous strategy.

A safer and less expensive approach, according to the authors, may be exploration science using telepresence, a strategy widely used on Earth now for activities as delicate and demanding as surgery.

"Telepresence means humans operating robotic systems from a distance close enough where the delay between human action and the robotic response is a fraction of a second," Hodges explained.

For Mars research, astronauts might go to Mars orbit, but not to the surface. From orbit, the communications travel time would be such that an astronaut/scientist could work with a robotic surrogate, experiencing the surface environment virtually, and doing scientific investigations as if she or he were on the ground.

Moreover, humans in Mars orbit could control instruments in real time at many different sites across the planet. And by preventing contamination of Mars with terrestrial biology, exploration telepresence from orbit also offers advantages over in situ human explorers.

While the authors add that scientific research by humans working directly on the other planetary surfaces is the ultimate goal, exploration telepresence could be an important next step.

“Today we do good science on Mars using long time-delay telerobotics, but we could do much better science much more quickly with humans on the surface,” Hodges said. “Exploration telepresence would be a reasonable compromise until that day comes."

Moreover, he said, "There are important targets for scientific exploration for which we currently don't have the technology to land humans safely. Exploration telepresence could greatly expand the number of destinations where humans can do great science."

 

Top photo: When scientists control Mars rover Curiosity, the turnaround time from deciding to examine a rock to getting the raw data back from the rover is one day at a minimum, due to the time delay for sending a command and getting a reply from the rover. But astronaut-scientists in Mars orbit could one day control, in real time, telerobotic landers, rovers and other surrogates all over the Martian surface. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration

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