Debunking the Mommy Myth
Thursday, October 1, 2009; 1:00 PM
In her article today, Washington Post staff writer Donna St. George reports that a recent census survey shows stay-at-home moms tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. So why does popular perception hold that a rising number of highly educated women are leaving high-powered jobs to raise their kids?
St. George and Hunter College sociologist Pamela Stone were online Thursday, Oct. 1 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the new report and what it says about mothering.
A transcript follows.
Pamela Stone is a sociologist at Hunter College and author of the 2007 book "Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home."
Donna St. George: Hi Everyone.
As many of you know, I had a story this morning about a new report that provided the first-ever census snapshot of mothers who stay home to raise their children.
The report was spurred by interest in the notion of an "opt-out revolution" of women leaving careers to stay at home raising children. But when researchers analyzed national data, their portrait showed mothers at home were younger than other mothers, tended to have less formal education, and were more likely to be Hispanic or foreign born.
There were lots of other statistics and details in the story, but let's start here with your questions.
Alexandria, Va.: This article makes me angry enough to spit - as an educated (MBA) former consultant, I have decided to step out of the workforce to raise a family for the last couple of years, and probably the next couple, too.
Of course I'm under the age of 40, most mothers are, it's that little biological capability thing.
I'm taking responsibility for raising my own child so that we don't have another generation of spoiled, selfish, socially unconscious, ungrateful brats running around in twenty years. My mom stayed home for ten years to raise her four children, and I fully expect to re-enter the workforce when my child no longer needs me on a minute-to-minute basis.
The implications of the article that being a stay-at-home mother is a last resort, not a choice are ridiculous. Having the opportunity to raise your own children is glorious, and there are many mothers doing the best they can to spend the most quality time possible with their families. Years ago I read an article that stated that daycare workers are the second lowest paid profession in the US, second only to janitors. That should be the debate at hand, how to raise daycare standards and empower more women who want to be stay-at-home mothers, not if stay-at-home moms are uneducated, low-income, and opportunity-less.
Donna St. George: These kinds of issues really do touch a nerve because moms want to the very best by their children.
The story did not mean to suggest staying home was a last resort -- just that, overall, across the country, the moms who are at home raising children are largely not all women opting out of careers. Remember, the researchers were trying to give some context to questions people had asked about women opting out.
Kensington, Md.: Have any of these recent studies addressed educated women who "opt out" in the short term but rejoin the workforce as soon as their children are preschool/school age? This is quite common in my circle. Women who can afford to stay home may weigh their employment options very differently when they have a 6-month-old vs. a 5-yr.old vs. a 10-year-old.
Donna St. George: The census report was focused on married households with mothers at home to care for their children. But that still leaves millions of other mothers who were not profiled-- and work full-time or part-time or were in and out of the job market in 2007. So there are a lot of complex lives and individual choices behind these sorts of broad statistics. But they do give us a sense of the the larger trendlines.
What would you add, Professor, about the changes that women make as their children get older?
Pamela Stone: Donna's right. And so is the reader's observation. While the majority of moms of young, preschool age children are working (about 67%), they are less likely to be in the labor force than moms whose children are school-age. This is a common pattern.
Arlington, Va.: If it's not true that women are leaving the workforce to raise their kids, why do you think it's such a persistent myth? Where do you think it comes from?
Pamela Stone: Why the media fascination? Women who leave successful careers, typically in fields where they're still minorities, are highly visible no matter what they do, and we tend to focus on exceptions, which these women are. Moreover, their actions seem to conform to traditional gender roles, hence reinforcing what we think we know. Finally, we expect women with solid educational credentials and successful careers to persist in them, so they're not doing so is counterintuitive. All these things make for an element of surprise and newsworthiness. But I should note that these stories--women turning their backs on achievement to head home--have been around for a long time now, since the 1980s at least, and they all say the same thing. Some have called this evidence of media backlash. What I found in my research, by the way, was that the women I studied were NOT returning home primarily for family reasons, but were effectively being shut out of their jobs once they became moms.
Arlington, Va.: It seems although many women in highly paid careers may not opt-out of working after they have children, they do give up promotions and career advances in order to maintain part-time or flexible schedules. Women still carry the load when it comes to childcare, even when they're working. Mothers are the ones who more often stay home when children are sick, and drive kids to after school soccer, ballet, and music lessons. I think most women want to be with their children more, and so some work because they need to, but seek out flexible jobs and are often willing to forgo promotions in order to spend more time with their children. Flexible hours, part-time options, and telecommuting allows women to stay in the workforce after having children.
Donna St. George: You're right, women come up with many different ways to juggle work and family. The census report did not get at women who scaled back on work in some form, rather than stayed home entirely.
It drew conclusion demographically about the 5.6 million women who said they stayed home in 2007.
Interestingly, the Pew Research Center released a paper today called "the Harried Life of the Working Mother." One of the findings from that survey was that a majority of working moms -- 62 percent -- said they would prefer to work only part-time. In contrast, 79 percent of dads said they preferred full-time work.
Washington, DC: Not a question, but a comment. Something that seems to get lost in the discussion is the vast majority of the working mothers I know WANT to work. They don't work for strictly financial reasons--they find satisfaction in their jobs. Most of them have at least one post-graduate degree, are driven intellectually, and like the social aspects of work. They also find satisfaction with their families. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Donna St. George: This was not covered in the report either. But the Pew survey I mentioned earlier did say that the working moms were as likely as working dads and at-home moms to say they are happy with their lives.
On the other hand, it also said they were more likely that at-home moms or working dads to feel there was not enough time in the day.
Leesburg, Va.: That poster from Alexandria made me angry enough to spit. My family wasn't financially well off enough for my mother to stay at home and raise me. The implication that I am therefore a "spoiled, selfish, socially unconscious, ungrateful brat" as a result is quite offensive.
Conversely, I know plenty of stay at home moms who have children who fit that description aptly. The bottom line, is that whether or not a mother stays at home is independent of the type of child that is raised.
Alexandria would be wise not to make such sweeping generalizations like that, especially while being offended by the notion of having generalizations made about her.
Donna St. George: We got a number of replies to the Alexandria poster, so I'll get this one out there, to reflect the differing views.
San Francisco: To what degree has the myth that educated Moms are "opting out" of the workforce hurt women?
Pamela Stone: Good question. I think it hurts them and all women, by reinforcing the (erroneous) idea that they're not committed to their work, that work is secondary, and that work and family are "separate spheres," mutually exclusive. All the data show that women want both, that the vast majority of moms work, and that they need to work, contributing a good portion of household income and sometimes all of it. The opt-out myth, as I often say in my talks, lets employers "opt out" of doing something to really support working moms, making it possible to continue with their careers or easing the burden of work and family.
Falls Church, Va.: One of the reasons this issue is hard to discuss is because people continue to divide women into two camps - "working" and "at home." If we could get away from doing that it would be much easier to discuss family policy, beginning with the needs of children. The nonprofit organization Family and Home Network has launched a Campaign for Inclusive Family Policies, calling for policies that respect parents' choices in meeting their income-earning and caregiving responsibilities. See www.familyandhome.org
Catherine Myers, Executive Director, Family and Home Network
Pamela Stone: I just want to agree with this point. Increasingly, the research shows that work is typical for mothers, that the differences that used to exist 20-30 years ago between working and non-working mothers are disappearing, the old predictors aren't as powerful. And remember that the working-not working distinction is just a snapshot--across real women's lives, there's a combination, a woman not working now may be (and probably will be) working later.
Oak Hill, Va.: I have been home raising my kids for the past five years. My husband has a 6 figure income and my career in education is on hold although I have a B.S. from Virginia Tech and M.A from The George Washington University. This pretty much describes the background of all of the women in my "playgroup" in the D.C suburbs. Why do you think we aren't represented in the study?
Donna St. George: My sense from reporting this story is that your group is not well-represented in the study because it is relatively small, within a nation of 5.6 million at-home mothers. The report's coauthor said (quoting from the story now): "I do think there is a small population, a very small population, that is opting out, but with the nationally representative data, we're not seeing that."
washingtonpost.com: Here's the study Donna mentioned: The Harried Life of the Working Mother (Pew Research Center)
Silver Spring, Md.: I'm wondering if the census asks the right question. For example, to see if there really is an "opt-out revolution" among women, shouldn't it look at highly educated women leaving high-powered jobs to raise their kids compared to those staying? Or perhaps compare to what was done 10 or 20 years ago? Or compare to patterns among men?
The problem with the census is that highly educated women in high-powered jobs represent a minority of women, and is probably centered around large cities, so it would be hard to study this group by looking at a census of all women in the U.S.
Pamela Stone: I agree that "opting out" as typically understood is really about educated women. The Census's most recent report, the subject of today's story, is more broadly about stay-at-home moms. In work I and others have done, we have focused specifically on the group you mention. You can see my book (sorry for self-promo, but it has relevant information) and some other academic work that's hit mainstream media by Heather Boushey (economist) and Christine Percheski (sociologist)--try googling them and think you'll find it.
Maryland: I am one of those younger women (24) staying at home to raise my children. I am "highly educated" as well, with an engineering degree. I left my job in order to raise my children.
Personally, I viewed both work and, now, childrearing as being fulfilling, but I derive more personal satisfaction from being the primary caregiver, teacher, nurse, comforter, and moving mechanism for my children.
The most important thing, in my opinion, is that women be given a heads-up ahead of time that it is entirely possible to stay at home with kids if they want to, but it might require some sacrifices which prior planning will help alleviate (i.e., don't buy a huge house if it needs two incomes to pay the mortgage).
Likewise, it is entirely possible to be a working mother with the understanding that you might have to make extra effort to be connected with your kids at the end of a tiring work day.
No recrimination, more education!
Donna St. George: I'm sure your comments will be widely appreciated. I'll try to publish a few more of these, letting our posters offer comments on some of the questions raised by the report.
Williamsburg, Va.: I agree with the previous poster who said that many women who work WANT to work. I have two small children and work part-time now. Growing up, I just assumed that I would stop working when I had kids...but I never quit. It's certainly nice to have an income, but we could more than survive on my husband's salary. And although I hardly see myself as career-driven or ladder-climbing, I do enjoy working.
There are so many different stories of moms working in nontraditional ways now - it would have been nice to see those demographics included in the study.
Donna St. George: Here's another personal experience from our audience today.
Baltimore: What is the ultimate goal in reporting these findings? It seems to me that so much of this conversation is peripheral to the real debates that we need to have in our country. Whether well-off mothers who can afford to stay home do so, or whether poorer uneducated women who find that childcare is cost-prohibitive when compared to a low-wage job... all of this just pits moms against one another. The bottom line(s) in this discussion seems to me:
1. For most mothers childcare costs are insane - sometimes more than monthly rent or mortgage payments, while paradoxically, we pay the people who watch our children slave wages. The salary of a middle-class wage earner, say a paralegal, is likely critical to keeping a roof over the family's head, but not nearly enough to subsidize a nanny or daycare.
2. Part-time, flex-time and telecommuting options are not widely available.
3. It is not unreasonable for a mother to want to stay home with her child for more than a few weeks... our current family leave laws are brutal to both mothers and fathers and infants. Many women ask for more than 3 months of leave with the intention of returning to work after weaning, and are flat out denied the opportunity.
4. All family leave policies should be developed with the children in mind. When the American Academy of Pediatrics advises to breastfeed infants for one year, while women often have to beg for unpaid leave, it seems our priorities are skewed.
Pamela Stone: The Census, of course, is the nation's factfinder and they publish a series of studies on a variety of issues. It's up to others to think about implications, and based on my work and that of many researchers and analysts, you'd find wide agreement with the points and policy implications you highlight. Too many low- and middle-income workers are without any kind of support, in jobs offering few benefits and little flexibility--"one sick child away from getting fired" if they can't show up for work. Childcare is in scarce supply and costs are prohibitive for many families; most of us in the U.S. have to find private solutions to what in other, comparable countries are seen as public responsibilities. Childcare, leave, flexible work options, and, let me add, health insurance would make it easier for America's working families to both work, be productive, and raise their kids.
Rockville, Md.: I think one issue with this type of research is that the very definition of SAHMs versus working moms is not as clear-cut as a questionnaire might suggest. For instance, plenty of moms (including myself) are home with their children during the weekdays but squeeze in professional work from home during evenings, weekends, or even naptimes. There are plenty of entrepreneurs, freelancers, self-employed folks and independent contractors who straddle the middle ground. It is not as black and white as these number-crunchers like to believe!
Donna St. George: You're right, the definitions here can be tricky. The way I understand the question was phrased, a stay-at-home mom was a mom who had not done paid work at all in the year of the study (2007). So it did not capture women who squeezed in weekend work, or other part-time work.
Washington DC: In response to what Oakhill VA said, I do not think a lot of people in this area or those in the upper middle class range understand that most families are not as privileged. From what I've seen from living all over the country, only a small segment of the population fits Oakhill Mom and her playgroup. I'm not surprised she is not represented -- the study is talking about the majority. From my own experiences, I feel like the majority of mothers are forced to stay home because they cannot afford daycare and can live off of one salary. And then there are others who may want to stay home but have to work because they cannot survive on one salary based on their circumstances.
Donna St. George: Here's another reader's experience, which seems to fit some of what I was hearing yesterday, as I was interviewing experts and others about the census report.
Silver Spring, Md.: Several posters seem to think that their circle of friends and their own experience is somehow statistically representative of the nation as a whole, or that a statement about what is true on average must be true about every single person falling into the given category. How do we educate people more in how to interpret these types of useful results while dispelling these misconceptions?
Donna St. George: I think people feel strongly about what they know in a up-close and personal way. But the census study's purpose, I think, was to detail in a useful way what is true on average, in a diverse country, across millions of people, so that there would be a better overall understanding.
Williamsburg, Va.: You mentioned that many moms who are currently not working will return to work in the future.
What do you recommend currently at-home moms or part-time working moms do to stay marketable? I doubt that 'room mom' or 'team mom' is going to look all that good on a resume.
Pamela Stone: Good question, and a real concern. Whatever the reason for taking time out, and no matter how rewarding it's been, employers will see a gap. And--sorry to be disillusioning--for all the talk about how much we as a culture value motherhood, research shows that mothers encounter a kind of motherhood bias or penalty in the workplace, including hiring decisions. That said, I think there are things you can do to overcome this and generally gear up. One is not to discount your volunteer activities--think about the job skills you used and find a way to position them on your resume (e.g, how much money you raised, volunteers supervised, goals achieved). Also be sure to network among your friends, let them know what your skills are and that you're thinking about returning to work. For some women I've known, the road back started with a project-based, short-term job that allowed them to retool and refresh. You might even be thinking about changing fields, so look in to programs at your local colleges--more and more are targeting women like you (as well as men) looking for a mid-career change (teaching, for example, is one field that's doing this). Finally, check your local library, as there are a number of books out there on just this subject.
New York State: As usual, this discussion focuses on women almost exclusively. Obviously, though, there is another person involved, and that is the husband. If the wife is less committed to her career, the husband will be more committed to his, and vice versa. And that's not even getting into gay and otherwise untraditional households.
By the way, I'm a stay-at-home dad, hoping my two year old will fall asleep right now. My wife works outside the home.
Donna St. George: We've not heard from many men today, as far as I can tell, so here are a few thoughts from a stay-home dad in New York. He has a point about the partnership involved.
Wilmington, N.C. : Are there really on 165,000 stay at home dads? That seems low to me, but maybe I move in odd circles. Do you think there are as many stories about stay at home dads as "opt out" moms?
Pamela Stone: Trust the Census, they do a great job on this kind of demographic information. Stay-at-home dads are a very small, but rapidly growing phenomenon. For some of the same reasons that the "opt-out" moms get disproportionate attention, so too do the stay-at-home dads. They represent a fascinating, new, gender-bending kind of family/household. I predict we will see more and more of them, and I noticed that we have at least one poster who's in this kind of arrangement. The economy being what it is, most households need dual earners, but I think it's a sign of real change when those families who can afford the option of a stay-at-home parent decide it'll be dad.
I am not an "other": I understand the term "stay at home mother." Why use the term "other mothers"? Why not "go to work mothers"? We are the majority; we are not "others."
Donna St. George: This is a good point. Thanks for asking. It turns out that the "other" mothers were a group that included part-time, full-time, unemployed and women who stayed home for reasons other than to care for children. So it was impossible to say "working mothers."
Dayton, Ohio: I was fortunate enough to be able to choose to stay home with our daughter--and to start a home-based business since my husband was able to support us. What bothers me is that if a woman can make this kind of choice, she is essentially sacrificing a large amount of income--not only now, but for her retirement--income that can probably never be made up even if she goes back to work after the children are in school. She is also dependent on the goodwill of her husband/partner for the continuity of the marriage and financial support. This is a vulnerable place to be and you rarely hear this subject discussed.
Donna St. George: We're going to get a few more experiences out there from our readers and then have to sign off. Here's the first in a few we will post...
Alexandria, Va.: As a mom who has worked full-time while raising kids for the last 11 years: The greatest assist to either SAHMs (who want to get jobs but can't find them) or to currently WOHMs would be extension of the length of the school day to match the workday. This disparity is why women would prefer to work part-time -- as discussed in WaPo Outlook section this weekend, just try to find adequate "aftercare" for a 12 year old.
Donna St. George: Another reader weighing in here...
Washington, DC: My wife fits the opting out definition perfectly. She/we did not do it for any reason other than it was what she wanted. We can discuss what is "best for the children" (day care, nanny, SAHM, family care, etc) but frankly staying home was best for my wife, she loves it and kudos to her for doing what she loves. We adjust and a dinner out is not in the budget, but hey, we are happy.
As I am sure you know better than I, when using a large sample there are many people that fall in the "minority" side of a sampling, like my family. I think the research and article are very interesting, but caution the readers not to get "offended" by it no matter how your family rolls with things. C'est la vie!
Donna St. George: And another voice in the discussion....
Richmond, Va.: I live in an area where the majority of children have a parent as their caretaker. We have several families where both parents are in the house because of telecommuting or home offices so they tag-team care for their children. In every case, we are a group of well educated, several-generation American, financially comfortable folks who have opted to take time off to raise our children while they are young. Though I do stay at home with my children, I also volunteer and take classes. I am not so sure, if asked, I would answer that my profession is "stay at home mother." I guess I question the collection method and/or exact questions asked/data looked at when putting this study together.
Donna St. George: Another reader's experience here. (I do think the study addressed paid work, not volunteering.)
State College, Pa.: I just turned 40, and have a nine-month-old baby. I always assumed I'd stay at home to raise my child. But as it turned out, I'm better at earning money than my husband is (no offense to him and he'd be the first to agree). I like working, he doesn't; I don't like housework, he does. So I work and he stays at home with the baby and takes care of the house. I work out of my house, so I see a lot of my child during the day.
It took a little planning to get here, though. I deliberately left my permanent, full time position about five or six years before we had the baby to become a freelancer so that I'd be established by the time we wanted kids. I'm lucky in that my job is one that can be done at home.
Donna St. George: Another from our audience....
Link: Is there a link to this census survey?
Donna St. George: The report was called America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2007. (PDF)
Donna St. George: Thanks to Pamela Stone for being here, and thanks to all of you for posting and reading. I know this was a short chat for a big topic-- motherhood.
Pamela Stone: Thanks for the great questions, thoughtful comments, and lively ripostes. I regret I couldn't respond to them all. Today's Washington Post column highlights that at-home moms are a diverse group and suggests that we need to rethink some of our preconceptions about them. Our chat underscores that so-called "working" moms are more similar than different from "at home" moms, and that moms and families generally need support and understanding at home and in the workplace. Signing off, Pam
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