The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Americans think mothers shouldn’t work full-time. The reality is far different.

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Americans, it turns out, are having a pretty hard time with the responsibilities of work and family.

But as the Democratic Party's presidential candidates in particular begin to address issues of work-life balance, the reality of working moms is far different from what people think would be ideal. These findings come courtesy of the Pew Research Center.

Let's begin by pointing out that 40 percent of women with children under the age of 18 are also the primary breadwinners in their families. That's a figure that's made up mostly of single mothers, but it also includes a substantial share of married women.

So, what Pew researchers learned in a 2012 survey about Americans' views on working mothers ranks among those findings that, while based on sound data and reasoning, are somewhat divorced from reality.

Still, take a moment to digest this.

According to the research, one-third of Americans and 22 percent of full-time working moms think that the most ideal situation for young children is one in which their mother is not employed. Another 42 percent of all Americans think that a mom with a part-time job would be best for these children. So, all told, 75 percent of Americans feel that having a mother who does not work full-time would be best for her children when they're young.

(When researchers put the question differently and asked what would be best for the women -- rather than for their children -- the results leaned a little heavier in favor of women limiting or avoiding work outside the home.)

Views of working fathers, however, show a major contrast. While 75 percent think mothers should not work or should only work part-time in an ideal world, 70 percent say fathers with young children should still work full-time.

The survey team behind the study found that mothers still spend more time than fathers on child care and housework. (We know: shocker!) So perhaps some of the views that showed up in the Pew survey are based on something concrete and real in people's lives. Women are -- either for practical or cultural reasons -- doing more of the child and home care. Then work eats up another chunk of their time.

Of course, it's also possible to derive a certain sense of accomplishment from unflappably changing roles and moving to a different task -- parenting or working -- as needed. But not much of that sentiment showed up in Pew's survey.

The researchers behind the study found that Americans were particularly concerned about protecting or fostering the bond between women and their children. A later Pew survey in 2013 found that becoming a mother has a much bigger impact on a career than does becoming a dad.

And apparently Americans' concerns don't stop with children and the mother-child bond. Majorities in a 2013 survey said that having more women in the work force has made it easier for families to meet their financial needs. But that influx of working women has also made sustaining a marriage and raising children harder, as nearly 75 percent of Americans agreed.

Okay, so that's how people feel. And a lot of that is quite likely based on the very real experience of being a working parent. The Fix suspects this because another big majority -- 79 percent of Americans -- told Pew researchers that they "reject the notion that women should return to a more traditional role in society."

So, you see, it's not the idea of working women but the actual experiences of having to juggle working and parenting that a lot of people do not always treasure. Still, for most families, women's income and whatever satisfaction women get from their jobs is either essential or important enough that a majority of mothers work -- and they do so full-time.

In 2014, the most recent period for which this sort of detailed employment data on mothers are available, about 64 percent of mothers with children under the age of 6 were employed or actively looking for work, and 70 percent of those worked full-time. So nearly half of all mothers of young children work full-time, though just 12 percent to 16 percent of Americans think they should.

And when kids get older, even more of their mothers work. In 2014, nearly 75 percent of mothers with children between the ages of 6 and 17 were working or actively looking for work. And among those with jobs, 77 percent worked full-time.

Here's the breakdown of full-time vs. part-time employment for working moms:

It's those figures, along with the grim picture of the effects of work on families that show up in those Pew surveys, that together really help  make clear why work-life balance, paid leave time and child care have emerged as such prominent issues on the Democratic side of the 2016 race.