The University Record, December 10, 2001

Success and happiness may not go hand-in-hand

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

The secret to success may not include happiness. A new U-M study of mid-life mothers finds nearly two-thirds feel they were less successful in their work lives than their adult daughters, but that their daughters are less happy than they were at the same age.

Deborah Carr, a sociologist at the Institute for Social Research, analyzed data on 611 women with daughters. These mothers were picked from a sample survey of Wisconsin high school graduates from the class of 1957. They were interviewed by mail or phone at ages 18, 36 and 53, with some additional in-depth interviews at age 59.

“Thinking back to when you were the same age your daughter is today, how were you doing in terms of work?” the women were asked at age 53 or 54. “Were you doing much better, better, the same, worse or much worse?” About 64 percent of the women said they had done worse or much worse, while 25 percent reported doing equally well and only 11 percent said they had done better or much better, Carr reports.

The daughters ranged in age 22–40. Overall, they had 14 years of education, compared with an average of 13 years among their mothers. Many of the daughters worked in higher status occupations than their mothers had.

In the analysis, Carr controlled for the mothers’ levels of self-acceptance and depression and for the feelings they expressed toward their daughters. She also took into account a variety of objective indicators of mother’s and daughter’s labor market success in order to see whether the mothers’ assessments of their work success compared to their daughters were a function of actual or perceived accomplishments.

She found that the mothers’ comparisons with their daughters reflected objective characteristics, and were not linked to either the quality of the mother-daughter relationship or the mother’s own level of self-acceptance and self-esteem. “This was a puzzling finding,” Carr notes, “since a significant body of research suggests that comparing yourself unfavorably with someone is linked with lower levels of psychological well-being.”

Exploring the issue further, Carr analyzed open-ended interviews with 16 of the mothers conducted in their homes when they were ages 58 or 59. The women were asked to think about their own work and family lives when they were the same age that their daughters were today, compare their successes and failures, and explain the reasons they saw for any differences.

“Few of the mothers attributed their daughter’s success to the women’s movement or other social changes that have helped women over the past 40 years,” says Carr. “Instead, the mothers were more likely to attribute their daughters’ success to unique personal characteristics, such as intelligence, ambition, and skill juggling work and family.”

For example, Betty, a high school graduate who was employed as a social worker after raising four children, boasted that her daughter had two college degrees. “And to get those degrees, she’s really worked her little butt off,” Betty said.

As they praised their daughters, many of the mothers also made self-deprecating comments. “She’s done everything she ever set her mind to,” said Diane. “I was just a homebody. I just wanted to stay home and raise babies.”

Notably, Carr found that many mothers described their daughters’ successful work lives as mixed blessings. They noted that their daughters’ careers often were accompanied by strained marriages, or worse yet to many of their mothers, by no marriage at all. Although the midlife mothers were clearly proud of their daughters’ educational and career accomplishments, few reported that their daughters’ lives were more desirable than their own had been.

“Most others believed that their daughters choices and their simultaneous pursuit of work and family goals carried considerable psychological costs,” Carr explains. “The strains of combining work and family, the stress of professional careers, and the difficulties accompanying new family forms, including step-families and single parenthood, were viewed as problems unique to the daughters’ generation. Mothers repeatedly said the stresses and strains their daughters experienced were something that they had been spared.”

For example, Janice, a bank teller whose daughter is a junior high school teacher, said, “At her age, I was married, I had a house, had a husband. She’s single, no boyfriend, she lives in an apartment by herself. I’d say it’s better for her to be married, but that’s just my opinion.”

Focusing on stressors in their daughters’ lives may allow the mothers to justify their own life choices, Carr suggests. “Interestingly, a close inspection of the survey data from 1975 forward shows that many of the mothers were grappling with work and family demands similar to those their daughters are now facing,” she says. “Nearly 70 percent were working for pay at age 35, roughly the same age their daughters are today. Emphasizing that their work duties had been far less important than their child-rearing duties, and recounting their pasts to comply with the 1950s edict that ‘good mothers’ should stay at home with their children, may allow the workers to protect themselves from the threat to their self-esteem posed by daughters’ who have successful careers.”