What's a Working Mother Worth?

Despite 150 years of social transformation related to the status of women, fluctuations in married mothers' attachment to the workforce are still a magnet for controversy. Spurred by population studies showing a modest decline in the number of mothers of infants who work for pay, the latest incarnation of the women/work/family debate centers on whether or not college-educated mothers are sufficiently committed to career advancement. While social scientists contend that mothers' labor force participation rates have remained relatively stable since the early 1990s, others view the barely-there trend of elite mothers "opting out" of the labor force as cause for alarm.

Stay-at-home moms have been accused of squandering their human potential and standing in the way women's progress (Linda Hirshman, "Homeward Bound" and Get To Work, 2006) and living in denial about the risks of financial dependency on a spouse who may not stick around for the long haul (Leslie Bennetts, The Feminine Mistake, 2007). Meanwhile, work-life scholars such as Joan C. Williams (of the Center for WorkLife Law) and Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, argue that married mothers' exodus from the professional workforce is precipitated by gender discrimination and the inflexible culture of the American workplace.

The factor consistently ignored in this discussion -- both by the "get to work" camp and experts who decry the family-unfriendliness of social policies and employment practices in the United States -- is that even though the majority U.S. families depend on mothers' earnings to get by, Americans remain deeply divided about the value of maternal employment.

According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, few U.S. adults -- including a minority of working mothers -- believe the trend toward full employment for women with young children is ideal for families or beneficial to society. While 34 percent of employed mothers agree that more mothers in the waged workforce is a "good thing" for society -- up from 19 percent just a decade ago -- an equal number see the rise in maternal labor force participation as a negative event. And while six out of ten U.S. mothers with children age 6 and older work full-time, only one in ten employed mothers feels that working full-time is best for kids.

The public concurs. Forty-two percent of Americans believe the increase in working mothers has been detrimental to society, and only one in five say the new norm of maternal employment is a positive development. An overwhelming majority of men and women (83 percent) think that children are better off when mothers either forgo work outside the home (42 percent) or work less than full-time (41 percent). In line with popular opinion -- or perhaps in response to it -- in 2007, employed mothers were more likely to favor part-time work compared to mothers who took a similar survey in 1997, and at-home moms were more likely to prefer non-employment.

Since the Pew survey doesn't delve into the reasons for the shift in mothers' attitudes over time, we can only speculate about the values and motives that shape maternal preferences -- and those who characterize at-home motherhood as a symptom of social failure probably will. A better approach is to acknowledge that prevailing sentiments about whether, and how much, mothers of young children should work outside the home are profoundly out of sync with the economic realities of contemporary family life, and consider the effect that has on public policy and mothers' work opportunities.

For feminist sympathizers, the sinking feeling (or sense of outrage) triggered by the release of the Pew study stems partly from our reluctance to accept that the patriarchy is not quite as dead as we thought it was. Clearly, cultural and systemic changes have not kept pace with legal guarantees of equal opportunities for women. Yet lingering resistance to maternal employment doesn't necessarily imply a wholesale rejection of egalitarian values. For example, Americans have a highly favorable opinion of stay-at-home fatherhood -- according to Pew Research, nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults view "more fathers staying home with children" as a good or neutral outcome for society. And compared to typical media coverage of stay-at-home moms (see above), care-giving dads receive remarkably good press. During the recent Mother's Day news cycle, an unprecedented number of first-person commentaries and human interest stories were devoted to the joys and challenges of involved fatherhood.

The Ozzie-and-Harriet model of marriage and family life -- full-time breadwinner dad and full-time homemaker mom -- is rotten for women who want economic independence and a larger kind of life. But it's pretty good for children whose mothers are satisfied with the at-home role, and it's great for men -- even fathers who resent the financial burden of a dependent spouse benefit from round-the-clock relief from urgent family responsibilities.

The "great for men" aspect of the stay-at-home mom equation is what makes critics fume -- and rightfully so. But for those who suggest that at-home mothers are responsible for prolonging the gendered division of social power, the Pew survey offers a timely reality check. What mothers do -- and what mothers want -- appears to have a limited impact on public values and societal norms. At the very least, the two-fold increase in maternal employment over the last 30 years has yet to result in a dramatic reversal of cultural attitudes that safeguard male privilege in the public and private sphere.

Mothers today speak wistfully of "off ramps" and "on ramps" to quality employment. But in the long run, stay-at-home motherhood is not a sustainable solution to the chronic time and economic shortfalls facing the nation's working families. And unless Americans relinquish the notion that maternal employment is a reflection of women's ideals rather than a fact of life, part-time work is unlikely to provide more than a sub-par "mommy track" for professional-class mothers. Mothers and their work preferences are not the problem. It's what the rest of the country is thinking that's holding women back.