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Mommy Wars Part III


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March 15, 2006

Mommy Wars Part III

Cathy Arnst

There's an excellent oped piece in today's New York Times that bolsters the case of many commenters on this issue--there really is no raging mommy war, because most women work. As Claudia Golden, an economics professor at Harvard, points out:

The facts speak loudly and clearly against such suppositions. Women who graduated 25 years ago from the nation's top colleges did not "opt out" in large numbers, and today's graduates aren't likely to do so either.

I was relieved to finally read something on this controversial issue that uses actual numbers rather than anecdotes. Golden bases her piece on a Mellon Foundation study that collected information on more than 10,000 women and 10,000 men who entered one of 34 highly selective colleges and universities in 1976 and graduated by 1981.

The key findings:

Among these women fully 58 percent were never out of the job market for more than six months total in the 15 or so years that followed college or more advanced schooling. On average, the women in the survey spent a total of just 1.6 years out of the labor force, or 11 percent of their potential working years. Just 7 percent spent more than half of their available time away from employment.

These women were, moreover, committed not just to their careers. They were also wives and mothers — 87 percent of the sample had been married, 79 percent were still married 15 years after graduation and 69 percent had at least one child (statistics that are similar to national ones for this demographic group from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey). Women with at least one child spent a total of 2.1 years on average out of the labor force, or 14 percent of their potential time. Fifty percent of those with children never had a non-employment (non-educational) spell lasting more than 6 months.

Fellow blogger Anne Tergesen is surely right that some of us are carrying on an internal war about whether or not we should be working or staying home. But most of us are probably just getting on with our lives--we work because we want to, or because we have to, or, like most men, a blend of the two, and I don't know many women or men who spend a lot of psychic energy worrying about it. The bottom line is that the majority of U.S. mothers do work. As of 2004, 70.7% of women with children under 18 and 62.2% of women with children 6 and under, according to the U.S. Dept of Labor. That ship has sailed, and instead of debating the pros and cons of whether it should have left the dock in the first place, let's debate how to improve the work/family balance for both mothers and fathers.

01:07 PM

Work/Life

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I respectfully disagree with many of your assertions in this post.

There's a big generational gap between those who graduated from college prior to '81 (Baby Boomers) and those who graduated in the mid-80s (Gen Xers). Respectfully, I think that's the gist of the "Mommy Wars" hoopla--that Gen-Xers are doing things differently than their parents did.

And, the statistics at the end of your article support that assertion. Nearly 8% more mothers with children under 6 are staying at home than those with older children. Once again, Gen Xers v. Boomers.

And, 62% is a "majority", but not a huge majority. A split of 62/48 can certainly a war make.

But, whether there's actually a "war" is really the issue, and I agree that that's probably not an appropriate or helpful term to use. But, contrary to your claim, I do think that a lot of "women or men ...spend a lot of psychic energy worrying about it" where "it" is whether to continuing working or to opt out in favor of a more sane lifestyle. It's an issue on the minds of many parents that I know, especially educated/professional mothers.

Not all of use choose to "balance" work and family. A lot of us choose to opt out temporarily. To dismiss the 42% that did so as irrelevant or virtually non-existent misses the point and the reality of the situation, in my opinion.

I do, however, absolutely agree that one important issue upon which to focus is encouraging employers to be more flexible in order to make it easier for those parents who might otherwise opt out to find a good work/family balance. As it stands right now, the inflexibility of many employers makes many parents feel as if they have to choose between an insane life that includes working or a sane life that doesn't.

Posted by: Nicole Black at March 15, 2006 02:59 PM

Sorry about my horrible math/typos. It's 62/38. And, the second to last paragraph should read "to dismiss that 38%.."

Posted by: Nicole Black at March 15, 2006 03:35 PM

Nicole -- Did not mean to dismiss the 38% of mothers with children 6 and under who stay home, and sorry if my post sounded that way. But I disagree that the lower figure for mothers with young children indicates that Gen X mothers are more likely to stay home. Remember, that figure counts in moms with infants, most of probably whom do stay home for some period of time. Note also 77% of women with children 6 to 17 are in the workforce, and that figure has been pretty consistent since 1986, so it must include younger moms as well as baby boomers. The rate did dip a couple of percentage points in the last few years, but that is a function of an overall decline in employment, since the percentage of men in the workforce dropped by a similar amount.

Also, Golden's article says that the trends found in earlier graduates appear to hold true for more recent graduates. I realize that many women do struggle with the issue of whether to work or stay home, but these are also women who are lucky enough to be in an economic bracket (or live in a cheap enough area) that they are have a choice. Have to admit, as a single mother the "mommy wars," be they internal or external, are just not part of my reality, and I imagine a good portion of the 70.7% of working moms would agree.

I'm with you, though, that we would all like to have some work/life balance that gives us quality time with both our kids and our job.

And don't worry about the math error--I believe that's called "mommy brain."

Posted by: carnst at March 15, 2006 05:09 PM

I dis-agree with the implied definition of sane (stay at home) vs. insane (work full time).

I went a little "in-sane" as a stay at home mom. I liked it for the first 2 years, and then I was ready to go back to work. Then I found out that I was pregnant again (happily). After the two years I really was not happy staying at home.

Maybe this is because I started in the work force at the age of 15. I like work. After being a sales professional, my first job after

baby was waitressing. It was great to be able to do something that was fun 15 years prior. But, it also shows how desperate I was to get out of the house and find a profitable income and a profitable time to do it. My husband stayed home with the kids nights and weekends.

I really wish that I had found a part time job earlier (even if it meant that I would end up paying more than my income to put the kids in daycare.)

I have a relevant question ... Just how common is it in the US for employers to offer part-time jobs with some benefits? What are the percentages?

And ... will men ever step up to the plate and truly balance work/family? My husband seems to balance the couch with his XXXX more than anything. Is he trying to balance gravity? Or, is just making sure that the satellite is still on the roof? Perhaps the vertical position makes him dizzy?

CK in Texas

Posted by: CK at March 16, 2006 06:31 PM


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