Mothers and Employment
This statement, or a variation on it, is often used in discussions about families: "According to the Department of Labor more than half of today's mothers now work outside the home." While there is nothing wrong with the Department of Labor's statistic, it has been widely misused and misunderstood, impacting policy debates and public opinion. It's important to understand what this statistic actually measures. The DOL statistic includes all mothers with a child under the age of 18, and it includes mothers earning any income at all (even those working as little as two hours per week). Yet many advocates for "working mothers" use the DOL statistic in a setting that focuses on mothers of infants and young children, leaving the impression that the majority of these mothers need full-time child care. Why would anyone do this? Among the reasons: some are concerned about lower-income families' financial challenges, some believe it is better for mothers to maintain full-time employment, and some so-called "advocates" for working mothers/families are owners of child care businesses who benefit from increased use of their services. For more on statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, please see their Employment Characteristics of Families Technical Note.
In the mid 1980s, Family and Home Network's founders became aware of the problems involved in using statistics to draw conclusions about families. In their book, What's a Smart Woman LikeYou Doing at Home?(1986, 1992) Linda Burton, Janet Dittmer and Cheri Loveless explained common misconceptions about the statistics on "working mothers" in Chapter 6: Setting the Record Straight.
Measuring How Families Care for Children
Reporters and policymakers often want statistics on how families are caring for their children. There is no simple statistic because there are so many flexible and creative care arrangements parents utilize - and as their families grow and change, these care arrangements change. Examples of some of the strategies families use in meeting their caregiving responsibilities include: mother or father at-home, part-time work, "tag team" work/caregiving (parents work on different schedules) and work-at-home parents. Caregiving strategies include part-time preschool, part-time babysitters, co-op arrangements in which parents trade babysitting with other families, and care provided by grandparents and/or other extended family members. Data on children under the age of 5 is available from the United States Census Bureau.
Children Cared For by People Who Love Them
Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit opinion research and education organization founded in 1975, examined the views of three groups—parents, employers and children’s advocates—for their study on child care issues, Necessary Compromises (2000). The “parents” part of the study involved 815 parents who had children age 5 or under.
Among the findings:
"For the vast majority of parents, having a parent at home full-time is by far the best way to provide care for children 5 years or under, and nearly half say they have made arrangements to do this. By overwhelming margins, parents say the love and sustained attention a parent offers simply cannot be replicated by other forms of care. Parents also believe that children raised by a stay-at-home parent are more likely to learn strong values and considerate behavior than children in child care. When a parent cannot be home, parents say, child care by a close relative is best. Despite their strong belief in and preference for one-on-one parental care, parents do say that other arrangements can be of high quality and of benefit to kids.”
Asked to say which is the “best child care arrangement during a child’s earliest years,” 70% said “to have one parent stay at home,”14% said “to have both parents work different shifts so one is almost always at home,” 6% said “to have a close relative look after the child,” 6% said “to place the child in a quality day care center,” 2% said “to bring the child to a mom in the neighborhood who cares for children in her home,” and 2% said “to have a nanny or babysitter at home.”
The Motherhood Study - a National Survey
Maternal feminist Enola Aird and Martha Farrell Erickson of the University of Minnesota co-authored a report on their rigorous large-scale investigation of a nationally representative sample of U.S. mothers age 18 and older with at least one child under the age of 18. The team of social science researchers found that "nearly 81% of mothers said mothering is the most important thing they do." Other key findings include:
- In contrast to much of the popular discourse that typically emphasizes the stress and strain of motherhood, mothers reported strikingly high levels of satisfaction with their lives as mothers."
- "More than 92% of the mothers we surveyed agreed with the statement, 'After becoming a mother, I found myself caring more about the well-being of all children, not just my own.'"
- "More than half of the mothers surveyed think that society as a whole is not doing a good job of meeting the needs of mothers, children, and families."
- "Mothers want more time to spend on personal and family relationships, with almost 61% 'strongly' agreeing and 22% 'somewhat' agreeing with that statement."
Aird, Enola and Erickson, Martha F. (2005). "The Motherhood Study: Fresh Insights on Mothers' Attitudes and Concerns." Institute for American Values, New York.
Nation-wide Survey of Parents' Preferences
The Pew Research Center reports (2013) on current attitudes of parents with children younger than 18: among mothers who are currently working, 52% would prefer to be home with their children; among fathers, almost half would prefer to be home with their children. Among all mothers, only 32% would prefer to work full-time; 47% prefer part-time work and 20% prefer not to be employed. Yet only 19% of mothers are working part-time, while 51% work full-time and 29% do not work at all. (“Modern Parenthood” March 2013).
Mothers Move In and Out of the Workforce
Research examining the complexities and changes in workforce participation is reported in "Women’s Employment Patterns During Early Parenthood: A Group-Based Trajectory Analysis," published in the Journal of Marriage and Familyin February 2005. Authors Kathryn Hynes and Marin Clarkberg of Cornell University conducted a complex analyses of data on more than 2400 women using data from the 1979-1998 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. They explain the difference between measuring employment transitions at particular points in time and seeking to understand employment trajectory over a period of time. They utilized “a relatively new method, the group-based trajectory method” to “examine the diverse ways that mothers of infants and young children negotiate the continuing decision to be employed or not.” Hynes and Clarkberg note: “scholars frequently imply that at the first birth, women divide themselves into two groups: workers and homemakers.” And they conclude, “Women’s employment patterns are characterized by significant amounts of change over the life course.”
Hynes, K. & Clarkberg, M. (2005), Women’s Employment Patterns During Early Parenthood: A Group-Based Trajectory Analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family. 67: 222-239.
Researchers Examine Stereotypes about Dual-Earner Couples
The term “dual-earner couples” often leads to erroneous assumptions, as Penny Edgell Becker and Phyllis Moen reported in their 1999 paper Scaling Back: Dual-Earner Couples’ Work-Family Strategies. Conducting “117 interviews with working men and women at various life-course stages who are members of dual-earner couples,” the researchers explain: “Our goal is to conceptualize dual-earner couples as decision-making units, to understand couples’ patterns of and plans for meshing work and family across the life course as they interweave work and family careers.” Becker & Moen explain the common assumptions and their findings: “The conventional depiction of middle-class working couples, especially those in professional or managerial jobs, is of two people heavily invested in climbing their respective career ladders” [five citations follow this statement in the article]. They continue, “but only a few couples in our study fit this stereotypical picture, forging ahead with two demanding careers.” They explain that the majority of the couples they studied “are typically engaged in what we call scaling back – strategies that reduce and restructure the couple’s commitment to paid work over the life course, and thereby buffer the family from work encroachments. We identify three separate scaling-back strategies: placing limits; having a one-job, one-career marriage; and trading off.”
Becker, P.E. & Moen, P. (1999). Scaling Back: Dual-Earner Couples’ Work-Family Strategies. Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 61, No. 4:995-1007.