Poll: Mothers want to work

photo-72One of the fun parts of renting vacation houses is seeing what magazines and books other people have left there. I may subscribe to Bon Appetit and Vanity Fair after paging through abandoned issues at the Cape May place. But one of the more interesting articles I read was in Parents — though not necessarily for the article’s stated reason.

The story was about the so-called “Mommy Wars.” The magazine commissioned a poll finding that, in reality, most mothers think other mothers are trying their best, and everyone’s tired and worried about money. No big surprise there (also not surprising: the magazine attempted to show the magnitude of the discussion by reporting that “a Google search of ‘mommy wars’ yielded nearly 25 million results.” Aaargh — see yesterday’s post.)

But what I did find interesting is what percent of stay at home moms said they’d like to work. In the Parents’ poll, 51 percent said they were at home at least partly because of “insufficient pay or pay that doesn’t make up for the cost of child care.” Sixty percent said they would get a job if there were more options for part-time work or quality and affordable daycare. And about a quarter said one of the reasons they weren’t working is that they were unable to find work.

This is not the usual narrative you hear of women opting out because of not wanting to miss a moment (or what have you). Mothers, in general, want to work. While a 2007 Pew poll found that only 19% of working mothers would prefer to be at home, the same poll found that 49% of SAHMs would prefer to work part- or full-time. But they aren’t.

In the grand scheme of trying to raise the workforce participation rate — something that benefits the entire economy tremendously — this seems like a missed opportunity. Ideally in coming years there will be more growth in alternate ways of working, including flexible hours, telecommuting, etc. The cost of childcare is always going to be an issue, because quality care involves paying caregivers decently. Add in overhead, and the cost will always be a large chunk of the average income. It could be better subsidized, but as a political matter, Americans are of very mixed minds about daycare. A Pew survey found that in 2003 (granted, 10 years ago), 72 percent of Americans thought too many kids “are being raised in daycare centers these days.”

I’m not sure what’s to be done about this, but thinking about these numbers definitely colored how I looked at the cover of Time magazine this week on the child-free life. I see nothing wrong with not having children if you don’t want children. But I was a bit put off by the assertion (from some in the article) that the world is set up around the needs of families with kids. Really? If so, someone would have set up free-to-users daycare right around the time we got interstates. Both are about economic development — given how many mothers want to work, but aren’t working. A system like Social Security would have been set up first around parental leave, not around retirement. But clearly, that didn’t happen. 

16 thoughts on “Poll: Mothers want to work

  1. Preach 🙂

    Maybe this is par for the course because it’s been over 10 years since I looked for a job, but I’m finding the part-time positions available are much less solid.

    I’ve had at least 6 “sure things”, and so far, none of them have come to fruition. They seem to linger, then disappear in the haze of “turned into full-time +”, “salary drastically lower than advertised”, “lost funding”, and my personal favorite “company reorg”.

    In contrast, my (female) project manager friend who started her full time job search later than mine, was easily able to secure a position within 3 weeks.

    Not complaining, as it’s my choice to be picky about flexibility, but yeah, the tech world is definitely not making it easy, parents or otherwise.

    1. @ARC – yes, part-time work, particularly part-time at home work, inhabits this strange world where a lot of the usual rules don’t apply. If you want to hire someone for a FT on-site position, there’s usually a process and it’s for sure a real job.

  2. Whenever someone tells me that the world is set up for families, I always smile sweetly and say that if that were true, we wouldn’t have daylight savings anymore, because that creates a lot of havoc for families, particularly those with small kids. Your examples are more substantive, but the daylight savings one sidesteps the politics!

    1. @Cloud – ugh, daylight savings. I’m always grateful when there are nice touches for kids places — like special security lines at airports and kids options at restaurants that don’t immediately seem like they’re set up that way. But I rarely expect it, which suggests to me that the world is not set up for families…

  3. The NYTimes parenting section isn’t interested in lower SES or lower middle class families, just upper middle class families, possibly because they’re more likely to be readers or possibly because they’re the only people the reporters associate with. So of course they only write about the lawyers turned SAHM, and not the out of work waitresses.

    As the middle class continues to shrink, the disconnect between this reporting and the majority of families is just going to grow.

    1. @N&M – what’s interesting about that is that reporting, in general, doesn’t pay that well. It pays more in NYC than in other towns, but that’s because NYC is expensive. Unless you’re married to someone with a high-paying job or come from such a family — which may be the case — you’re no where near the league of two lawyers married to each other, one of whom opts out after her husband makes partner. (Unless you’re a Times columnist and writing best-selling books).

      I guess there’s the status-income disequilibrium David Brooks writes about. Reporters have influence but often lack cash. Their degrees put them in a category that their income does not.

      1. Most of those NYTimes parenting articles people seem to be married to high-income guys. I don’t know about the current person in charge of Motherlode, but that’s the case for at least some of the columnists.
        We knew several SAHM former lawyers when we were living in a coastal city. They were pretty miserable and their working overtime to pay for student loans and the car lease husbands were miserable too. They said they didn’t want to miss a single moment, but we suspected that their law jobs just sucked.

        1. @N&M – KJ went to law school with my husband, and she worked as a prosecutor (I believe) for a great many years. Writing was the second career. She’s written essays criticizing the usual narrative (one recently on the trouble with the surveys showing most moms want to work part-time).

          But yes, there’s a certain narrative present elsewhere in NY times world about high SES women that certainly does not seem to be reflected in the general population (more present in this Parents poll).

          1. Yes! I stopped reading motherlode years ago, but I’ve noticed that the articles linked from there in other blogs have been MUCH higher quality recently. I loved her recent article on not wanting her daughter to be nice. Very different from the usual mommy wars, “homemade cookies at a bakesale” (I think that was straw on the camel’s back article for me) fodder.

  4. “the world is set up for families with kids”??? Ha. Though I can see where the sentiment is coming from, as I’m sure child-free women feel acutely the underlying cultural assumption that a woman is not fulfilling her true purpose until she procreates, that she is somehow missing out, and one I know a lot of women get “I’m sure you’ll change your mind and regret it later”.

    1. I think we turn motherhood and families into something mythical. Society is not set up to deal with the reality.

    2. @Ana – yes, I’m sure there are cultural assumptions and nosy questions: “when are you going to have kids??”

      1. I am from Mexico and the expectation (from society) is that women are supposed to get married and have kids. If a women is 27 or 28 and single, then the question from everyone is: when are you getting married (and have kids).

        In addition, women are supposed to stay at home once married and raise the family while the man works. That’s what most girls are told when growing up… go to college, find a suitor there and be a good wife. Quite different than what you see in America. That’s how I was raised and my wife understands our roles (she stays at home). She grew up in America and both of her parents worked Full-time. She hated being at daycare or with other family members while her parents worked. I grew up with my mom being available at all times and we agreed that having a parent at home at all times is the best way to raise our family.

    1. @WG – yup. Interesting article. I like that it was mixed stories, hard to draw a cut and dried conclusion from, but that’s life. A bad marriage may be a bad marriage whether you’re working or not, but earning enough to support yourself and your children well gives you a lot more options.

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