More young Americans want moms to stay home. What's behind that?

In the past 20 years, high school seniors have moved toward the view that it's ideal if mothers can stay home with children – even though those seniors also support gender equality in the workplace.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Stay-at-home dad Darrell Humphrey prays with his son Ethan before eating a meal at a fast food restaurant, in Charlotte, N.C., in 2015. Darrell, an ordained minister, chose to stay home to raise his boys while his wife works as a bank manager. Surveys of high school seniors find a rising number say it's ideal for children to be raised with one parent staying at home rather than working.

Brianna Hoffman had a lot going on growing up. She was a three-sport athlete, played multiple instruments in the school band, and pulled late nights and constant rehearsals working stage crew for her high school’s theater productions in Hampstead, N.H. She couldn’t have done it all, she says, without her mom, who was mostly stay-at-home while her father worked in sales at a small power equipment company.

“It was better to have one parent [at home],” she says. “My mom was always there, she could help me with my homework and drive me to stuff. I wouldn’t have been able to have all of those experiences if she wasn’t there to … I don’t want to say be my taxi, but we’ve always joked about that a little bit.”

Ms. Hoffman, now a senior at Syracuse University in New York, thinks her family’s arrangement, with one parent working and one wrangling childcare and household duties, is ideal. “I don’t think it matters which parent stays home, but it was better to have someone there,” she says. And her views on the matter are increasingly common among people her age.

In fact, among young adults, support for this type of traditional family structure has been on the rise for the past 20 years, while a preference for two working parents is falling out of favor, according to a batch of reports released in March by the Council on Contemporary Families.

In one survey, which has tracked the attitudes of a cross section of the country’s high school seniors for the past four decades, only 42 percent of respondents in 1994 thought a family in which the father worked and the mother stayed at home was the “best” possible arrangement. By 2014, that was the majority view, with 58 percent support.

What’s happening isn’t all about turning back the clock on gender roles in US society. Part of it, yes, reflects the staying power of "the status quo" for men and women, especially among the religious. But the shift may be more about the ideal of a parent – mother or father – being at home: At the same time that young Americans’ views on what the family dynamic should be are skewing more traditional, there is a strengthening penchant for women to have equal opportunities in the workplace.

Still, the trend line on parental roles, which holds true for female and (more so) for male respondents, has confounded researchers, and anyone who would expect social views to get uniformly more progressive among younger generations.

“Kids today answer these questions the same way my cohort did during the Reagan administration,” says David Cotter, a sociologist who co-wrote the new analysis of high school seniors' attitudes in the Monitoring the Future survey, which has been conducted since 1975. “I don’t think I would have guessed that. I’d guess that it would become more egalitarian over time.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Searching for why

Experts have come up with a few possible reasons for the disconnect: The US population has an increasing share of Latinos, who have more traditional views on gender and family, for example. But more prominent are theories that have to do with family stability and the failure of the US workplace to adapt to the needs of families with two working parents.

Out of sheer economic necessity, those are now more the rule than the exception: Both parents work in 66 percent of married couples with children, but have higher expenses (like health care and child care), than single-income families did a few decades ago. At the same time, the share of women as the sole or primary breadwinner is increasing, but that trend is present primarily among lower-income households, so it’s not exactly a sign of have-it-all moms on the rise.

Even families with more financial stability, the experts argue, are overextended. “Some youths who saw their parents experiencing disagreements and stresses as they tried to integrate work and family without supportive policies may have concluded that a male-breadwinner arrangement would have made family life easier,” writes sociologist Dan Carlson in response to the new research.

Hoffman, the college student, agrees. “I have friends my age with two parents working, and it doesn’t seem like they are nearly as close with their parents,” she says. “It’s not dinner with your parents; it’s sitting with a microwave dinner, watching TV.”

“In the 1950s, one two-parent family was expected to give about 40 hours a week to the labor market,” says Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She says that essentially doubled as women entered the workforce en masse in the 1980s, and in the 2000s the time commitment of work may seem greater still.

“No really successful worker is assumed to have responsibilities to anyone but himself,” she says. “If you feel the negative consequences of parents not being able to juggle everything, there’s a way in which you might think, this doesn’t work, let’s go back to the good old days.”

That may be counterintuitive, observers note: For one, health-care, college, and other costs are showing no signs of returning to 1950s levels. And two-income households are better able to weather times of financial stress, such as a job loss or health crisis.

Also, young people on the whole have more progressive views on gender roles than their parents or even their elder Millennial peers; many in Professor Risman’s research reject the construct of gender altogether.

Carlson adds that there’s evidence that a more equal division of household and child-care duties between couples makes everyone happier. But that research finding doesn’t necessarily make it easy to implement load-sharing in practice.

“Our current lack of supportive institutions and policies to help families integrate work and family life has begun to take its toll,” he writes. “If something is not done soon to structurally support the egalitarian arrangements that research now shows to be best for most relationships, people may no longer want them to begin with.”

Backsliding on gender equality?

In fact, the recent poll findings may have drawn attention in part because they come on the heels of a rocky period in the march toward gender equality. Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominee of a major political party, lost the presidential election, and the new administration aims to roll back some current policies that promote abortion rights and workplace protections for women. Russia decriminalized domestic violence in February. Proud public declarations of sexist attitudes seem rampant: In March, for example a Polish lawmaker argued that women should make less money than men on the basis that they are “weaker, smaller, and less intelligent.”

There are hints of this more pernicious brand of sexism in the polling data, too: A small but growing number of high school seniors are more likely to agree that the “husband should make all the important decisions in the family ” than they were 20 years ago, suggesting “a significant minority of youths have reverted to an endorsement of male supremacy,” according to researchers.

“Young women used to believe, I’m equal, [feminism] was my mother and grandmother’s issue, I’m beyond that,” says Risman. “That has been shattered like broken glass. You can’t possibly believe right now that your rights are safe as a woman.”

Contradictory views

But young adults’ attitudes toward gender aren’t entirely sliding back to the 1950s. Even as the preference for more traditional family roles is increasing, so is support for women to have equal footing in the workplace. Professor Cotter, of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., analyzed responses of high school seniors along with Joanna Pepin at the University of Maryland. The two researchers found increased agreement, over time, with the idea that women and men should have equal opportunities in the workplace.

Notably, they also found agreement that working mothers can have just as strong a bond with their children as stay-at-home moms.

Risman has uncovered this contradiction in her own field research interviewing young adults in the Chicago area for the forthcoming book, “Where Will the Millennials Take us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure.” Even young people with the most traditional views on gender, typically from religious families, supported equality in the public sphere, or the workplace, even as at home “there were strong, distinct roles for men and women.”

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