Census Dispels 'Opting-Out' Notion for Stay-at-Home Moms

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called "opt-out revolution" among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

"I do think there is a small population, a very small population, that is opting out, but with the nationally representative data, we're just not seeing that," said Diana B. Elliott, a family demographer who is co-author of the U.S. Census Bureau report.

The report showed that mothering full time at home is a widespread phenomenon, including 5.6 million women, or nearly one in four married mothers with children younger than 15. By comparison, the country's stay-at-home dads number 165,000.

Researchers noted that the somewhat younger ages of stay-at-home mothers could partly explain their lower education levels and that less family income would be expected with just one parent in the workforce.

Even so, the profile of mothers at home that emerged is clearly at odds with the popular discussion that has flourished in recent years, they said.

The notion of an opt-out revolution took shape in 2003, when New York Times writer Lisa Belkin coined the term to describe the choices made by a group of high-achieving Princeton women who left the fast track after they had children.

It has since been the subject of public debate, academic study and media obsession. It has been derided as a myth but has never quite gone away in an era when women still struggle to balance work and family and motherhood's conflicts have been parodied and probed in everything from Judith Warner's book "Perfect Madness" to television's "Desperate Housewives" and "The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom."

The census statistics show, for example, that the educational level of nearly one in five mothers at home was less than a high school degree, as compared with one in 12 other mothers. Thirty two percent of moms at home have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 38 percent of other mothers.

Twelve percent of stay-at-home moms live below the poverty line, compared with 5 percent of other mothers. On the other end of the economic scale, about one-third of moms at home had family incomes of $75,000 a year or more, whereas roughly half of other mothers did.

Given this portrait, mothers at home appear to be "the more vulnerable women, for whom I would argue the issue is lack of opportunity," said sociologist Pamela Stone of Hunter College. "They have a hard time finding a job and finding a job that makes work worth it."

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