A close look at labor statistics bursts the `Supermom' myth

Fact: 62 percent of all American women with children under 18 work outside the home. Myth: 62 percent of all American mothers are Supermoms who wear ``power suits,'' drop the baby at a day-care center, and work downtown 40 hours a week.

Like a shimmering mist, the image of the Supermom distorts the reality of mothers in the United States today. A closer look at the statistics and the lives of ordinary mothers shows a very different pattern.

According to an analysis of 1985 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures by the American Enterprise Institute, only 41 percent of all mothers work full time. That means most mothers work either part time or entirely as homemakers. The numbers of working women drop even more sharply if you look at married mothers (33 percent work full time), or unwed mothers (29 percent work full time).

Even the term ``full-time labor'' isn't what it seems. As defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it means full time at any period during the calendar year. If you weed out teachers who have their summers off and others with similar patterns, you find only 23 percent of all married mothers working full time year round.

Then there are people like Pat Nader, a nurse who works three 12-hour night shifts on the weekends in Washington, D.C. ``Because we work nights and weekends,'' she explains, ``we get paid for 40 hours of work - it counts as a full-time job. They call it the `Mother Shift,''' she says.

``There's always been shift work among blue-collar workers,'' points out Diane Rothberg of the Association of Part-Time Professionals. ``Now we're finding more among professional women who are having children - real estate people, air traffic controllers, financial services.''

Full-time work, then, doesn't always mean 9 to 5, five days a week. It also doesn't necessarily mean going to an office. According to a 1985 study on the subject by the Census Bureau, some 600,000 mothers with children under the age of 6 work full time out of their homes. That doesn't include farm workers - another half-million.

Some of these women working at home, like Nina Prunka, an aerobics instructor in Washington, do their business while the kids are in school. ``I got into exercise after my third child - I was a little plump,'' she explains.

So she earned a degree in physiology and brokered her expertise in aerobics into classes for a handful of government agencies, given while her children (aged 7, 10, and 13) are in school.

But many of these at-home workers use sitters, says Kathleen Christensen of the National Project for Homebound Workers - clerical workers relying on their husbands and relatives, professional women using professional day care.

What emerges here is a picture of mothers scaling back on hours, shifting to night work, cutting deals with their employers, inventing businesses - in short, doing everything possible to spend more hours with their children. ``This way,'' says Mrs. Nader, the weekend nurse, ``I can be a mommy at home.''

``Women have babies and fall madly in love with them,'' says Ms. Rothberg, ``and they try very, very hard to stay with them. Having children is the No. 1 motivation behind most part-time work.''

Being able to be with their children is the big benefit - a benefit these women are clearly willing to pay for. The price lies mainly in career: ``The anxiety,'' says part-time lawyer Leslie Harris of the American Civil Liberties Union, ``is that [dropping back to part time while raising children] is an uncharted course. What will this mean to my next prospective employer?''

``I used to have a career - I was on the management level in a hospital in New York,'' says Maureen Mansfield, mother of two boys. ``Now I have a job. And frankly, I don't care. Kids are my top priority.''

The other part of the price is paid by the families: ``My husband is in charge of the kids and meals all weekend; I just come home to sleep and eat,'' says Nader. ``And by the end of the weekend, everything's a little crazy.''

Other women say that, with the couple's switching off child-care duties, it's hard to find time for the two of them to be alone.

But the larger price, argue Douglas M. Berkarov and Michelle M. Dally of the American Enterprise Institute, is being paid by American society, laboring under the myth of the Supermom.

``Women who stay home at least part time to care for their children do so at no small personal cost; the time and effort they devote to raising families reduce their job experience, seniority, and thus their earning potential,'' they wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

``The tax code, welfare policy, and the laws on child-support enforcement should all better recognize their contribution and the career costs that result,'' they say.

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