Working mothers: to everything, a season

Carolyn Moynihan
4 September 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The much celebrated rise of women in education and the workforce has given rise to the much debated second shift syndrome, in which mothers who work full time come home to do most of the childcare and other domestic work (cooking, shopping, laundry…), and to why women can't have it all tracts from high-powered career women who want to see more of their children. However, Neil Gilbert at Family Studies notes a recent trend that may see more mothers and couples finding a better work-life balance.

According to the Pew Research Centre , for three decades starting around 1967, the proportion of stay-at-home mothers in the United States fell steeply - from 49 percent to 23 percent in 1999. That includes both married women with a working husband and single or cohabiting mothers. Since then, however, the proportion of all stay-at-home mothers has risen to 29 percent. "If this rate of change continued," says Gilbert, who is Chernin Professor of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, "by 2032 the proportion of mothers staying at home would be almost as high as it was in 1970."

The increase - particularly that over the past five years - could be just a temporary response to the Great Recession and a sluggish labour market, says Gilbert.

Or it might signal the coming of a new era, not so much a long-term contraction in female labor force participation as a change in the pattern of participation, one which introduces a season for childrearing into the course of work and family life.

Instead of both parents adopting the "male model of working steadily from the time of school completion until retirement" they could choose "a sequential pattern in which one or both parents' efforts are invested in childrearing and paid employment at different periods over the life course."

This seems like common sense and research shows it is what most mothers want. However, Gilbert points out that it doesn't have to be the mother who stays home. If she is earning more than her husband, which nearly a third of women in married, dual earner US households are now, it could make sense for the father to be home-based. The economics are not bad, either:

What often does not make economic sense, for working- and middle-class families with a child or two of preschool age, is having both parents work. In 2012, the median wage of women working full-time was roughly $36,400. Simple arithmetic suggests that after subtracting the average price of quality daycare (more than $14,000 at the University of California Berkeley), taxes, transportation and other work-related costs, what remains of the second income would not substantially enhance the material lifestyles of many families with young children. Less costly childcare is available - but then parents get the quality of care they purchase, and children pay the price.

Not only is it good for the nurturing of young children to have a parent at home; it is much easier on the whole family. Gilbert suggests that a new generation of young parents may see the "sequential model of work and care" as a good option. Society at large could help:

In line with this approach, as an alternative to subsidized public daycare services in support of two-earner families, a number of European countries have introduced an allowance to parents who provide in-home care for their preschool children. These policies balance some of the financial incentives for pursuing the concurrent and sequential models of work and care. They also revive public regard for the social and economic value of parenting. As debates continue here in the U.S. over paid parental leave and related issues, this policy option deserves greater consideration.

As many have observed, women can perhaps "have it all", though not all at the same time. But this is not just about women; it's about the family being able to do its job of raising the next generation, and doing it well. And enjoying it, what's more. Why should the most important task in society be a source of constant stress?