Debunking the Stay-at-Home-Mom Myth

A landmark study suggests that women need to have more choices and to be judged less

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A generation after women first began debating whether they should leave the workforce to raise their children, a number of columnists are pointing out that most moms at home today never had the option. A new U.S. Census study finds that the preponderance of stay-at-home moms are not the privileged white women popularly thought to have "opted out" of the workforce in the late 1990s when times were good. Instead, they're likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent, and often Hispanic. It's time to move beyond judging stay-at-home moms relative to those in workforce, say these columnists, and focus on offering them more choices.

  • The Opt-Out Revolution Never Happened. At Salon, Judy Berman chides The New York Times for failing to see what the census data seems to bear out: that most women who stay at home are not "opting out" of the workforce, but are unable to enter it for lack of education and childcare:
Between the exorbitant cost of childcare and the thankless, insultingly low-paying jobs available, it just doesn't make sense for many mothers with little education to work outside the home. If we really look at the census data, stay-at-home mothering begins to seem less like a post-feminist choice than a decision often made out of pure necessity.

Berman wonders why such a large portion of American moms appear shut out of the workforce. "The most statistically significant group of full-time moms turn out to be the women who have never reaped the benefits of white, middle-class feminism. Perhaps this is the phenomenon that actually deserves a Times Magazine cover story ... but I won't hold my breath."

  • Let's Start Finding Ways to Give Women More Choices, David Leonhardt suggests at The New York Times.
Here's a modest proposal: maybe we should stop arguing so much about whether women are staying home in greater numbers and focus instead on the policy questions. How can companies be persuaded, or pushed, to make part-time work a more serious options for both mothers and fathers? How can part-time work -- or, for that matter, years spent outside the labor force -- become less of a career killer? What can be done to encourage more fathers to take paternity leave? How can we create better, more comprehensive pre-school programs, so that middle-class and poor parents of 3- and 4-year-olds can feel more comfortable working full time?
  • American Motherhood: More Children, More Work, Less Support, Sharon Lerner writes at DoubleX. Recent studies show that American women are less happy than their counterparts in similar countries, and Lerner says the reason is clear: American women work more, have more children, but receive less support than other women do in the developed nations. 
Even while we've continued to raise sizable families, American women have achieved the very highest rate of full-time employment in the world, with 75 percent of employed women working full-time. This combination would seem to be untenable without support from government and employers, but American women get very little of that.

She, too, believes that American women need more choices:

The United States is a glaring exception in the developed world and beyond in having no mandatory paid maternity leave, no nationwide childcare system, few flexible work options, and, as we've heard lately, no universal health coverage. So while mothers in the Czech Republic can choose between having their paid leave stretch either from one to three years after giving birth, and every French parent can count on low- or no-cost preschool, women in the United States are bearing the brunt of working motherhood with far fewer supports.
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