Mothers At Work: Brave New World or Necessary Evil?

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A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that more mothers of infants are in the workforce than ever before, and married couple families in which both parents work now outnumber married couples with at least one parent at home.

According to the report, released October 24, 2000, 59 percent of mothers with children under one year of age were either employed or actively seeking employment in 1998, compared with 31 percent in 1976. Among married couples with one or more children under 18, 51 percent had both parents in the workforce in 1998, compared with 33 percent of married couples in 1976.1

One of the report’s authors surmised that the increase of mothers in the workplace is one reason for the increased interest in child care issues since 1976, and she and other experts interviewed in news accounts expressed confidence that this trend would continue to grow. Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in an interview with the New York Times, openly refuted the notion that more mothers are making the decision to stay at home with their children: “It’s time to move beyond, ‘Is it good, is it bad?’ and get to ‘How do we make it work.'”

But is it really time to “move beyond” this question? Do such reports tell us what parents of young children want? Or do they simply give us a picture of what they are obliged to cope with, given the financial and other demands facing them? Which young mothers are more likely to return to work soon after the birth of a child, and what does this tell us about their reasons for doing so? In addition, do mothers of infants tend to work full time or part time, and do they remain in the workforce as their children get older?

1) Do mothers of young children want to remain in the workforce?-A number of opinion surveys indicate that most parents are concerned about the so-called “time bind” that keeps them from spending more time with their children. A major survey conducted recently found that, although a majority of American parents acknowledge that childcare is a necessity for many families, it is not their first choice when it comes to what is best for their children. In fact, a majority of parents surveyed said that having a parent stay at home with young children is the best possible arrangement for their care and development. Where this is not possible, a majority of parents said that care by a close relative is the next best solution. A majority (53 percent) of parents surveyed favor tax breaks for families in which one parent stays home.2

2) Which mothers are most likely to return to work quickly? Several factors, including educational attainment, work experience, and marital status tend to predict how soon women return to work after the birth of a child. A woman with a college education, for example, is considerably more likely to return to work sooner than a woman with a high school education or less. Women who invested more time in their jobs during pregnancy and who worked late into their pregnancies also tend to return to work sooner. This suggests that women with a high level of commitment to a career tend to maintain their professional lives after the birth of a child.

Marital status of the mother is also a major factor predicting whether a mother will return to work when her children are very young. Interestingly, the labor participation rate is slightly higher among married mothers with infants than among never-married mothers with infants. This may be explained in part by financial factors, since married mothers are far less likely to be poor and are therefore in a much better position to make satisfactory child care arrangements. But this cannot be the only factor, because the highest labor force participation rate was among separated, divorced or widowed mothers of infants.

3) Do all mothers of infants work full time? According to the Census Bureau data, although more mothers of infants are in the workforce, only 35.8 percent of them work full time. The rest work part time (17.3 percent), are unemployed (5.6 percent), or are at home with their children. Among married mothers, 39.3 percent work full time. Among never-married mothers, only 24.2 percent work full time. Again, the highest labor participation rate is among separated, divorced or widowed mothers (50.2 percent work full-time).

4) Do labor participation rates of mothers change over time? Mothers who have not had a child in the past year are more likely to be in the workforce, and they are much more likely to work full time. Still, a substantial number of them do not fit the stereotype of the full-time career woman. According to recent Census Bureau data, among married couple families with related children under 18, only about 40.5 percent had a mother who worked full-time, year-round. That leaves nearly 60 percent with a mother who did not work, worked part-time, or worked only part of the year.3 Most teachers do not work year-round and thus do not fit into the full-time, year-round category. Women have traditionally chosen teaching as a profession in part because it allowed them to keep the same schedule as their children.

In fact, the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates a recent downturn in labor participation both among married women and among never-married women with children under the age of three. Separated, divorced or widowed mothers are the exception in this category as well, registering a slight increase in labor force participation rates.

As the figure shows, the overall labor participation rate for married mothers with children under 3 remained relatively stable from 1996 to 1998, hovering around 60 or 61 percent.

But the most recent data indicate a slight downturn to a level below that of 1994 among married mothers, and in 1999 the labor force participation of never-married mothers also declined slightly after a substantial increase from 1993 to 1998. In contrast, there was a sharp upturn in labor force participation rates among separated, divorced or widowed mothers of children under 3 from 1994 to 1999.

Could this be the beginning of a trend? Will more and more mothers continue to make the sacrifices necessary to do what they believe is best for their children?

It is still too early to tell. But policy makers would do well to heed the wishes of parents in fashioning public policy that satisfies the needs of children, especially very young children, for the attention and presence of their parents. Tax policies that make it easier for parents of young children to live on one full-time income, for instance, or that broaden child care tax credits to include care by close relatives would be helpful. Most importantly, policy makers should operate under the general assumption that parents are the best judges of what is best for their children.

End Notes

  1. Amara Bachu and Martin O’Connell, Fertility of American Women, U.S. Census Bureau, Sept. 2000. P20-526, p.9.
  2. Steve Farkas, Ann Duffett and Jean Johnson, etc., “Necessary Compromises: How Parents, Employers and Children’s Advocates View Child Care Today” (New York: Public Agenda, Aug. 2000), 10-13.
  3. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, Detailed Family Income Tabulations for 1999, Tables FINC-03 and FINC-04 (March 2000).

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