A new analysis of government data released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center shows the number of at-home moms has increased 6 percent over the past dozen years.
What hasn’t changed is the fact that parents read reports like this and, instead of finding the common ground, may become divided by the results.
As I read the Pew analysis, with pie charts and graphs all over the computer screen, my math-loving son eyes the screen and says, “So, it’s stay-at-home moms vs. working moms. Who’s winning?”
While this made me laugh, it also made me think that these studies tend to divide parents over “who’s winning” a life experience that should be a journey and not a race.
“For a variety of reasons – from a tough job market to changing demographics – we’re seeing an uptick in the share of mothers who are staying at home,” says D’Vera Cohn, one of the report’s authors, in an e-mail. “Stay-at-home mothers are a diverse group. They are younger and less educated than their working counterparts, and more likely to be living in poverty. Many are staying at home to care for family, but some are home because they can’t find jobs, are enrolled in school or are ill or disabled.”
Over the past 20 years of mothering four sons from home, with some full-time jobs in between, I have felt as if I was fighting a losing battle to earn money, feel like a good parent, retain my identity, and remain in love with both my husband and my choices.
While my children have now reached the age where I can go back to work full-time, jobs are still scarce and gaps in a resume are often frowned upon by employers, even if for a good cause, like parenting.
Perhaps it would help prospective employers to know that according to the Pew researchers, Americans report they still feel that having a parent – mom or dad – at home is best for a child.
In a recent Pew Research survey, 60 percent of respondents said children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family, versus 35 percent who said children are just as well off with both parents out of the house.
However, choice does not really seem to be the main reason more moms are at home instead of on the job.
“A growing share of stay-at-home mothers (6% in 2012, compared with 1% in 2000) say they are home with their children because they cannot find a job,” the report concludes. “With incomes stagnant in recent years for all but the college-educated, less educated workers in particular may weigh the cost of child care against wages and decide it makes more economic sense to stay home.”
When it comes to work considerations, my husband and I have had to balance the factors of both childcare costs and the lower income I will bring in, since staying home with our sons has left some gaps in my resume.
Also, my working outside the home provides just enough of a bump to put us into a higher tax bracket, at which point all benefits of my earnings are almost entirely negated.
The largest share of women who are at-home mothers consists of “traditional” married stay-at-home mothers with working husbands, according to the report.
Married, at-home moms like me made up roughly two-thirds of the nation’s 10.4 million stay-at-home mothers in 2012.
Around half (51 percent) of stay-at-home mothers care for at least one child age 5 or younger, compared with 41 percent of working mothers.
An issue of concern to be found here is that 49 percent of at-home moms hold only a high school diploma or less, compared with 30 percent of working mothers.
In addition, the report also shows that a third (34 percent) of stay-at-home mothers are living in poverty. Based on a US Census Bureau measure, the official poverty threshold for a family of four was $23,283 a year. Only 12 percent of working mothers were below that threshold.
However, even with all that time at home performing childcare, household chores, homework duty, and all the other things that go into raising children, at-home mothers are harder on themselves than working mothers when asked to rate their own maternal job performance.
In a 2012 survey cited in the report, only 66 percent of stay-at-home mothers rated themselves as “excellent” or “very good” parents, compared with 78 percent of working mothers.
Could that also mean that absence in the form of a job really does make the heart grow fonder – and more tolerant of error – both on the part of the kids and the working parents?
Maybe that's because when time spent with family is precious and hard-won, it’s best spent dwelling on the positive.
A 2013 survey cited by Pew in the final analysis of the report finds that Americans are still worried about the effects mothers working away from home has on kids, despite the “clear economic benefits of having more mothers in the workplace.”
About two-thirds of the adults surveyed (67 percent) say the increasing number of women working for pay outside the home has made it easier for families to earn enough to live comfortably. But at the same time, 74 percent say this trend has made it harder for parents to raise children.
As part of the current report, Pew points out that, on average, working mothers spend 36 hours per week in paid work, and so predictably have less time to spend on childcare and household chores.
Conversely, stay-at-home mothers spend only about one hour per week participating in activities that generate income.
Pew researchers referred to “time use diaries” kept by mothers, which show that overall stay-at-home mothers spend an average of 18 hours per week in childcare activities, seven hours more than working mothers. Authors point out that these numbers are for one child, and that the amount of time in these tasks increases with more children, especially with kids under the age of 5.
However, my favorite part of this survey is the mention that stay-at-home mothers “also have nine more hours per week of leisure time and five more hours per week of time to sleep (including naps) than do working mothers.”
It’s my favorite part of the study because “naps” are the common ground on which all parents can lay their weary heads.
Parental naps are not done in the sun after a dip in the pool, but rather are the result of total emotional and physical strain resulting from caring for a child, home, and family.
The research might not count it as a “nap” when a working parent returns home to hungry, messy kids and falls dead asleep on the couch after feeding their tribe.
For parents reading these kinds of reports, my advice is to remember that at the end of the day, no matter where or how you spent your time, your choices were the best ones you could make for your kids and not anyone else’s.