In 1998, Brenda Barnes quit her job as head of Pepsi's North American Division to spend more time with her kids. Since then, hardly a month has gone by without some media outlet reporting that affluent, highly educated mothers are opting out of their jobs to become full-time homemakers. If Helen of Troy was the woman whose face launched a thousand ships, Ms. Barnes was the woman whose resignation launched a thousand myths.
Like most myths, the opt-out mom story contains a kernel of truth. It's hard to combine work and parenthood, and more moms than dads take time off from work while their kids are young. But also like most myths, the kernel of truth is surrounded by a comforting lie that relieves social anxieties without solving them, in this case by feeding the illusion that women will resolve our work-family conflicts by reversing the growing commitment to lifelong employment that they exhibited in the 1970s and 1980s.
Take a closer look at Barnes's story. Today she is the CEO of Chicago-based Sara Lee, after signing on as its Chief Operating Officer in 2004. She describes the news accounts of her break from full-time employment as "definitely a myth." When she quit PepsiCo, her children were 7, 8, and 10 and were doing fine, she says. She just wanted to spend more time with them for her own sake. Even so, Barnes was never a full-time homemaker. During the next six years she served on seven corporate boards, was interim president of Starwood Hotels from November 1999 to March 2000, chaired the board of trustees of her alma mater, and taught at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management.
Brenda Barnes is one of a growing minority of working women who have the clout to move between high-powered jobs. Good for her. Highly educated, high-income wives did take more breaks from employment between 1993 and 2004 than in the previous decade, an option made possible partly by their own achievements and partly by the soaring incomes of their husbands. The top 5 percent of households saw their after-tax income rise by 52 percent during the 1990s, while incomes of the middle 20 percent rose by just 12 percent, even though most wives in this income group increased their work hours.
Nevertheless, highly educated mothers are less likely than any other group of moms to become stay-at-home moms. For mothers with children under age 6, 65 percent of those with high school diplomas are in the labor force, compared with 68 percent of mothers with college degrees and 75 percent of mothers with postgraduate degrees. The real story is that the workforce participation of less-educated mothers is catching up to that of the more educated ones. Today, the likelihood that a woman will leave her job because of her children is half what it was in 1984.
The "opt-out" stories got a new lease on life in 2005, when census studies showed that the workforce participation of mothers had dropped by almost 2 percent since its peak in 2000. But economist Heather Boushey reports a similar drop in labor force participation rates of childless women and all men as the job market shrank during the 2001-04 recession.
Mothers have always been less likely to work full-time than men or childless women. But that trend is decreasing, not growing. In 1993, the labor force participation of mothers aged 25 to 54 was 14 percent lower than that of childless women in the same age group. By 2000 it was 10 percent lower. By 2004 it was just 8 percent lower. And when women do leave work to take care of their children, most of them return to work sooner than did mothers in generations past.
Two groups of wives stay out of the labor force for longer amounts of time. One is women in the richest 5 percent of the population. The other group is women with a high school education or less, who married and had children at an early age. Often, these women would like to work but cannot afford to, because the wages they could earn would not cover adequate child care or the additional expenses of transportation and work clothes.
In the middle layers of income distribution, most wives and mothers are in the labor force most of the time they are raising children. Some experiment with part-time work while their children are young; others stop working for a few years.
But even these women are seldom choosing to opt out. They are shut out by the most backward work-family policies in the industrial world. An international survey by the Council on Contemporary Families found that, of the world's leading industrial countries, only the United States and Australia do not offer government-mandated paid maternity leave. But Australia offers a year of unpaid leave, while the US Family Leave Act guarantees a maximum of just 12 weeks. And half of American workers are not even entitled to that, because they work for companies too small to be covered by the act.
Self-styled "pro family" advocates often oppose family-friendly social policies, such as paid parental leave and investment in high-quality child care, in hopes of forcing women to become full-time wives and moms. But in other industrial countries that lack adequate work-family policies, such as Japan, Singapore, and Italy, women are increasingly turning away from marriage and motherhood altogether.
At this point in history, women's participation in the workforce will not be reversed. Advocates of child-centered values and stable marriage should support legislation that makes it easier for both women and men to combine work life with family obligations. This includes subsidized parental leaves, quality child care and preschool, and options to cut back on work without losing medical benefits or seniority. Mothers are not opting out of work responsibilities, and it is time for employers and legislators to stop opting out of their responsibilities to families.
• Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage," teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.