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Should Moms Only Work Part-Time?

Vivia Chen

April 4, 2013

Woman and Baby © Scott Griessel - Fotolia.comSo what's the deal? Are Americans supportive or not of mothers in the workforce? Looking at the recently released survey of 2,511 adults by Pew Research Center, I'd say we're deeply confused. 

First, the reassuring news: We are not going backwards. Despite our nostalgia for June Cleaver, there has been progress since the 1960s, reports Pew:

Married mothers with young children are the major driving force for the rise of women’s employment rate. In 1968, about 37 percent of working-age married women with young children were employed; in 2011, it was about 65 percent.

Even in the last few years, there's been a significant shift in attitudes:

Fully 37 percent of today’s working mothers say their ideal situation would be to work full-time, up from 21 percent of working mothers in 2007. . . .

Only 11 percent of working mothers say their ideal situation would be not to work at all, down from 19 percent in 2007. Part-time work remains the most appealing option for working mothers; 50 percent now say working part-time would be ideal for them, down marginally from 60 percent in 2007.

(Frankly, I would have assumed that everyone—men too—would prefer to work part-time. Alas, that's not the case: "For their part, fathers prefer full-time work. Fully 75 percent of fathers with children under age 18 say working full-time is ideal for them.")

So if almost 40 percent of working moms now want to work full-time outside of the home—what's to stop them? Well, societal disapproval might be one factor:

Only 16 percent of all adults say having a mother who works full-time is ideal for a young child. A plurality of adults (42 percent) say having a mother who works part-time is ideal for a young child, and one-third say having a mother who doesn’t work at all is ideal.

In case you missed it: A third believe the stay-at-home mom is still the best model! That's seriously reactionary. That said, men's views are changing rapidly:

In 2009, 54 percent of fathers with children under age 17 said the ideal situation for young children was to have a mother who did not work at all. Today only 37 percent of fathers with children under age 18 say this—a drop of 17 percentage points.

For women, though, the issue of what they regard as best for children depends on their working status: "Mothers who are employed full-time are much more likely than mothers who do not work to say having a working mother is ideal for a young child (75 percent vs. 44 percent)."

Okay, so far. But now comes the confusion:

Even most full-time working mothers don’t endorse their own situation. Only 22 percent say having a mother who works full-time is best for a young child, while 53 percent say having a mother who works part-time is ideal. About one-in-five (19 percent) mothers who work full-time say having a mother who doesn’t work at all is best for a child.

Is your head spinning yet? Rising numbers of moms want to work full-time, but most women also believe part-time work is the better situation. So if you're plugging away at a full-time job, you're probably a lousy mom. No wonder women are confused and ambivalent about their careers!

What gives? According to KJ Dell'Antonia of The New York Times's Motherlode blog, one problem is that Pew framed the question in an inherently sexist fashion. Pew asked participants:

What is the ideal situation for young children: mothers working full-time, mothers working part-time, or mothers not working at all outside the home?

What Pew should have asked, says the NYT, is:

What is the ideal situation for young children in two-parent homes: both parents working full-time, one parent working part-time, or one parent not working at all outside the home?

Would tweaking the question change the tenor of this discussion? Or is it so ingrained that moms should be the primary caretaker that the phrasing would have no impact? Frankly, I'm not sure I want to know the answer.

What do you think?

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected]

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Probably my biggest habit is spending too much time helping other people build their own businesses and not enough time on my own (because I enjoy it so much).
I encourage you to hop down to your local coffee shop today with a notebook. Draw a line down the middle of the page. On one side write good habits and on the other side write bad habits.
Check this out: http://www.cre8recovery.com/blog/what%E2%80%99s-holding-you-back

As a woman, I am kind of disgusted with the idea that "what's best for Mom is best for the child." What if what's best for Mom is to do crack and watch a sci-fi marathon 24/7? Is that best for the child too, because, hey, Mom's happy? I recently quit my job to be with my children until they reach school age; yes, that made me incredibly happy! I would be ecstatic to continue staying home with them indefinitely. However, I can differentiate between what makes me happy and what is best for the children: of course it would make me happy to homeschool them for years on end. However, it's not best for the family; it's best for the family to send them to some private school and have me put in at least some part time hours so we can save for retirement and college for the kids. I think women who can think past their own egos are sorely in need in this country.

All I know is that no one can raise a child and know a child better than its own mother. My son and I are very close. I work part time. If I worked full time we probably wouldn't be as close. I have friend with kids that have problems cause they are working most of the time. One; his grandma is mostly there, so who does he want to be with most of the time...grandma. They are close and spend most of their time together. His mom asks him out to dinner, well he'd rather stay with his grandma for dinner. He's comfortable with her of course. Another friend; she works full time and doesn't get home till six. She misses or shows up late to her daughters recitals. Her daughter is constantly disappointed with her mothers absence. She is starting to act out for attention. I'm a career woman to. I successful one at that, but why not have a career and spend a little more time with your child that you want a close relationship with and to spend important developmental time with? If you can afford it, work part time; at least until they are in High School. This isn't sexist. Either the mom or the father stays a little longer with the kids. Unfortunately, capitalism and this society is making it hard for us to spend our time and life with our families that need us...ugh..

I absolutely think the way Pew worded it was inherently sexist. Why does it matter which parent stays home with the kids? The question is whether it is better for the kids to have *some* dedicated, familial caretaker. I also don't think that believing having someone home full time for young children (particularly before school age) is "reactionary." Why is that not a valid opinion?

Which brings me to the biggest ambiguity I found in the article/poll. How is "young children" defined. I feel very different about the ideals for an 8 year old (who may be considered pretty young) versus the ideal for a 2 year old. . . .

I think it's interesting that all of the studies listed are based on people's perceptions of what is ideal, not based on any quantitative measurement of 'ideal'.

I wonder what those measurements of ideal would even be: kid's grades, kid's emotional and social well being, parent's sense of peace and happiness, family's income...?

We're still struggling at achieving female equality and an optimum family environment for our children. I think that a lot of women want the option of working FT because they don't want decisions made for them. They also want the financial rewards that come with working FT. That being said, those of us "in the trenches" tend to view PT work as the holy grail. If it pays enough to meet your family's needs, and your employer goes for it, I think it's the holy grail. Kids need to have at least one involved person in their lives--a SAHM/D, a nanny and/or another family member like an aunt or grandmother is ideal.

The ideal should really be having either parent around as often as possible, or having a dedicated caretaker in the interim. But Laura is right, very few of us live in an ideal world, and the fact is that most of us need both parents to work full time to get by.

It is not inconsistent to recognize that a full time stay at home parent is best for children at least for a certain number of years, and yet feel that for the family as a whole the best situation is part time or full time for both parents. The issue is how much worse is it for the children if both parents work compared to the gain to the family over all, in other words, cost vs. benefit. I went back to work after both of my children were born, but never felt that they were better off with paid childcare compared to me being a full time mom. I just thought that the whole family over time was much better off with me working, and did not think that the net "harm" to them was significant enough to cause me to quit. It might be best for both parents to stay at home with their children and be on welfare, but no one criticizes parents for making the decision that some time away from your children can be spared for the economic advantages of one or both of them working.

I think it's different for every mother/family. For me, part-time work would be ideal, so I would feel intellectually challenged and have more time with my kids. I think people like Sheryl Sandberg are happiest working full time, so if mom is happy, the kids probably are, too. I also have friends who stay home and would be miserable if they worked at all. You have to do what works for your family!

I agree with Laura. That's what makes all this Sandberg Lean in stuff so Ivory Towerish. The vast majority of women in America need to work or want to work to maintain a desired standard of living for themselves and their children. This is true whether they are in a two parent home or a single parent home. So, putting aside the minority who really have an unfettered choice of working or not, you then have to ask what work opportunities are available to you that provide sufficient funding to reach your economic goals and the cost of childcare. This will vary by individual woman, based on her education, her geographic location and the number and ages of children involved. Any academic value in asking what people think is ideal is lost because of the unknown, but necessary, assumptions that the responder has to make--regarding the net income from employment after childcare and the type of work available. Since those factors vary greatly by individual, there really is no value in the statistical response.

Why do they ask what is "ideal"? That's an overly high standard. They should have asked what is practical, or workable. Ideally, we wouldn't have to worry about money and childcare, but we don't live in an ideal world.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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