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Return of the Mommy Wars

What the Census says about women, work and motherhood
  • April 23 2012

The current discussion about Ann Romney’s stay-at-home choice (or lack of work experience) has again brought to light the debate about women, work and motherhood. Who exactly are stay-at-home moms? What exactly are the current attitudes related to work vs. motherhood? Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as surveys by the Pew Research Center shed light on the topic.

While the share of mothers in the workforce has risen significantly in recent decades, roughly three-in-ten mothers of children under age 18 still do not work outside the home, according to Census data on America’s families and living arrangements.

Still, the demographic profile of this woman does not necessarily match how stay-at-home moms have been recently portrayed in the media. They’re hardly so-called “Lululemon Moms” who stay at home to take Pilates classes and pamper themselves. In many cases, it’s less a choice and more a requirement. 2010 Census data reveals that stay-at-home moms are on average less educated than their counterparts in the labor force (18 percent of stay-at-home moms lack a high school degree, compared with 7 percent of working moms).  More than one fourth (27 percent) of stay-at-home moms are Hispanic, compared to 15 percent of working moms. Stay-at-home moms also have markedly lower household incomes than their working mom counterparts.

In terms of attitudes about working women, Pew has found that a public consensus has developed around the changing role of women in American society. A late 2011 survey found that nearly three quarters of American adults (73 percent) say the trend toward more women in the workforce has been a change for the better. Similarly, 62 percent of adults believe that a marriage in which the husband and wife both have jobs and both take care of the house and children provides a more satisfying life than one in which the husband provides for the family and the wife takes care of the home.

At the same time, notes Pew, when motherhood and children are brought into the debate, there is an ongoing ambivalence about what is best for society. Only 21 percent of adults say the trend toward more mothers of young children working outside the home has been a good thing for society, while 37 percent say this has been a bad thing and 38 percent say it hasn't made much difference.

Interestingly, women themselves report feeling stressed about balancing work and family.  When asked in a Pew survey about their “harried” lives, 40 percent of working moms said they always feel rushed.  This compares with 24 percent of the general public and 26 percent of stay-at-home moms.  For their part, working fathers don't seem to feel nearly as harried as working mothers—only 25 percent said they always feel rushed.


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