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Share of working moms nearing all-time high, but has it gotten any easier?

The percentage of mothers in the workforce is nearing record highs, leading to more societal acceptance and childcare options, but mothers still face a 'mommy wage gap' and other challenges.

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"When I had my first baby, there was a big focus on not telling your employer [you were pregnant] until it was painfully obvious, on not taking your full maternity leave," says Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of "Mommy Wars" and a mom of three who left corporate America to become a writer and public speaker. "Today mothers are more entitled and empowered to advocate for themselves."

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The result, says Ms. Steiner, is the prototypical working mom who's juggling sippy cups with legal briefs. "The portrait of a working mother today is a woman who is stretched really thin and who is crazy.... You work like a maniac all day ... then you rush home and have another whole shift with the kids," she says. "It's insanity!"

Herein lies the dilemma: Mothers are an integral part of the workforce, and public opinion has sanctioned this historic change, but, as Steiner's portrait illustrates, society hasn't yet reconciled the challenges inherent in juggling work and motherhood.

So have things gotten easier for working mothers?

"I would say yes," says Sornberger. "But a very qualified yes." For starters, a domestic revolution at home is easing working mothers' burdens. Fathers today spend three times as much time with their children, on average, than their own fathers did, a University of Maryland study found.

Fathers are also doing more housework, about two hours on any given weekday, or 42 minutes more per day on average than in 1977, according to the Families and Work Institute.

Employer accommodations for working moms have also improved markedly since the 1970s. More employers are providing job-protected leave, flexible work schedules, on-site child care, and even breastfeeding rooms. Child-care options have also improved in the past 30 years, says Deirdre Johnston, a professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

"The availability of child care has increased, the quality of good child care has improved, and the time structure for child-care options has improved," says Ms. Johnston. "But ... these options are available only for women who can afford it," she adds. "Child care is still very much a two-tiered system."

It's a reality Inshirah Barbour, a home health aide in Syracuse, N.Y., who supports her four children and her husband, a full-time student, knows all too well. Ms. Barbour often works overnight shifts so her husband can watch their kids, or else scrambles to find family members to watch them.

"For me, the easiest thing would be if I had day care where I worked," she says. "It would make a huge difference if I could bring them to work with me."

One of the greatest advances for working parents since the 1970s is the Family and Medical Leave Act. Signed into law under President Bill Clinton in 1993, the federal law requires em-ployers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees for medical and family needs, including pregnancy, adoption, foster placement, or family illness. And employees can't be fired for requesting or taking leave. Johnston calls it "the most important piece of legislation that has passed in the last 30 years."

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