Homemakers Get Plenty of Support
By Kirstin Downey Grimsley and R.H. Melton
A series of polls conducted by The Washington Post, Harvard University and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of the people surveyed said that although it may be necessary for a mother to work, it would be better for her family if she could stay home and care for the house and children, even when the children are in their teens. The viewpoint was found among women and men, with half of college-educated professional women sharing it, and across age groups, with older people feeling most strongly about it.
Among people younger than 30 years old, 45 percent said they respected the stay-at-home moms more. The sentiment grew stronger among older people, with 63 percent of those age 65 and older holding that view.
In dozens of interviews conducted for these articles, none of the survey respondents suggested that the nation should return to the patterns of the 1950s, when women who bore children were barred by law and custom from many workplaces. But many said they feared American families are not well served by the demands of today's business world, where men and women work increasingly long hours, without supports such as reliable, affordable child care that could help counterbalance those work demands.
Seeing little hope that their workloads could lessen, many respondents simply harkened to an earlier era and fondly described the ideal of women at home caring for children in an arrangement that seemed simpler and easier on families. But that longing surfaced in some of the same respondents who said they recognized that few families could survive on a single income and that some mothers would be dissatisfied staying at home.
'Didn't Feel Good'
"I didn't feel good about myself, either," Giannakis said. "I felt like what I was doing wasn't good enough. Now I feel like I'm contributing to something."
But still she disapproves of other women working, on principle. "A lot of women who work don't need to work," she said, adding that their "jobs are more important to them than their families."
Such contradictions continue even as the number of working mothers grows. A recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 77 percent of the mothers of school age children are working, as are 62 percent of mothers with children younger than 6.
For most Americans, the question of whether to stay at home is a theoretical one. Respondents to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey said the need for a second paycheck controlled the choice. The fact that women's paychecks are getting larger further complicates decisions: In about one in five dual-income households, the survey found, the wife makes more money than the husband. But in follow-up interviews, many people said accepting a family's smaller income by having a husband stay home was not a socially acceptable option for them.
"It's so difficult to establish new norms, especially when your political, educational and business institutions have not yet adjusted," said Stephanie Coontz, a family historian and professor at Evergreen State College and author of two books on modern families. "Just look at the school day: totally out of sync with working parents. As a result, kids don't just come home to an empty house but to an empty neighborhood."
For individuals and couples grappling with modern life, there are few clear-cut answers.
Judy Talley, 48, of Jackson, Mo., a poll respondent, is typical. She's a stay-at-home mom who has four children three now adults and a teenager at home and seven grandchildren. Talley's adult daughter and two daughters-in-law are all mothers who work outside their homes.
'Peace and Quiet'
"The kids wanted me to stay home. It meant security for them," Talley said. "I know it's hard now, but if a lot of mothers sat down and cut out some things, they could made it work."
But she doesn't blame her daughter, who has a son in preschool, for working full time at a coat hangar factory to help with payments on a house, car and utilities. "She's the type that likes to get out and work," Talley said. "She makes good money, but it's not great money. Everything is so high."
Viola Martinez, 67, who lives in southern Colorado near La Jara, also chose to stay home to raise eight children, a niece and a nephew while her husband farmed 60 acres.
By staying with the children, "you know where they are and what they need," Martinez said. She watched uneasily as her three adult daughters a doctor, a nurse and a college student placed their children in day care.
"I didn't like it real good, but they had to go to school to be somebody," Martinez said. "Everything's so expensive, so both have to work. ... If I was raising my kids now, I'd be working. There's not enough of anything."
But mixed emotions make it hard for the country to decide what's right for its children. People still view providing child care as an individual, rather than collective, responsibility, and the country is left without a coherent child-care policy, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute and an expert on day care. "There's no sense of shared responsibility in solving it," she said.
Eight months ago, Kathy Perniciaro, 29, of Bay St. Louis, Miss., quit her job as a dental assistant to stay home to care for her three children, ages 7, 5 and 2. She had liked the job, though the days were sometimes long, and she was proud that it enabled her to afford private school tuition for her children.
In the back of her mind, though, she was worried about how being away might affect them. That anxiety was heightened by incidents involving other children. Two youngsters recently had brought knives to kindergarten, and police had started patrolling a local high school because of drug use.
Those episodes left Perniciaro feeling "sad, really sad," she said. "These kids are hurting. There's no one there to give them structure."
But when she finally decided to resign, the impetus came from her retired parents, who had been helping to care for the children, she said. Her mother had always been a homemaker supported by her father, an affluent real estate broker, and that made it difficult for them to understand her situation, Perniciaro said. When her dad called one day and said the demands of caring for the children were too much for them, Perniciaro said, "the decision was made for me" to leave work.
"My family was sick of being used, sick of shuttling the children all over," Perniciaro said. "They said, 'We're tired after six years,' and I said, 'You know, I'm tired, too.' "
But because Perniciaro quit, her husband, Edward, 36, has had to work extra overtime at his job at a General Electric plant to compensate for the lost family income. He often works 12 hours a day, six days a week, and still the family lives close to the edge financially, Perniciaro said. And she has felt lonely with so many of her female friends continuing to work long hours.
"I'm kind of jealous they get to work, but they're probably jealous of me getting to be here," Perniciaro said. "It's not peachy-keen where I am, but it's not peachy-keen being where they are, either. I'm not sure which one I'd rather be they're both bad in some ways, but for the children, it's best for you to be home till they get of age."
Phyllis Skinner, 58, of Goldtown, W.Va., has been a railroad clerical worker for 39 years. Skinner said she believes she did what was right for her son, as long as she made sure she had good child care, and right for herself.
"I've always had a good job and made good money," Skinner said. "I've been fortunate. I think housewives without outside jobs get bored. It gets boring. It's boring for the children, too."
Skinner said her conviction that she made the right choice was strengthened by the fact that her husband has become disabled by a heart condition and her family would have suffered financially if she had been at home. She said that women who don't work are too vulnerable if the couple ends up divorced.
"You never know in life," Skinner said. "Men can walk, or some other thing can happen, like with my husband. Then it can be too late to start over in life. You can't always depend on somebody else."
'Pay Doesn't Stretch'
"My pay doesn't stretch all the way," Davis said.
Although Davis said his wife's working has not entailed much sacrifice for him, it has for her because he can be assigned to sea, leaving his wife to work and handle family details. "It's been hard," Davis said.
There are those, however, who, on one side or the other, see the issue of working mothers as unambiguous.
Mozell Smotherman, 75, of Tyler, Tex., who has been married three times and is the mother of 12, said it is better for women to stay home, because working poses perils for children and their mothers.
"There's lots of times they need their mother, and they can't see her. The moms get to honky-tonkin'," Smotherman said.
Just as pointed was Tom Wason, 47, an unmarried engineer from Phoenixville, Pa., who said mothers who stay home are "lumps on a log. They do nothing."
He said he views nonworking mothers as lazy people who have wasted their educations and become depressed at home. "It's so easy to waste your day away and say, 'Gee, I'm so busy,' " Wason said. "These ladies beef up. They get some cookies for the kids, and they keep eating them themselves."
But many of those who have done it both ways have mixed feelings.
Although working full time was untenable, said Perniciaro, the former dental assistant, being home full time during the last several months hasn't been blissful either. She said the kids are often cranky and hard to handle.
"Sometimes it's like me and the checkout lady at the Jitney Jungle grocery store," she said. "She's my only companion."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company