The Nation's Pulse

More Moms Staying Home

But not many collegians.

By 4.14.14

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The Pew Research Center has issued an interesting report on the increasing numbers of women staying home to care for their children over the past dozen years.

Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal noted a companion opinion survey by Pew last year which found that “mothers are much more likely than fathers to work fewer hours, take a significant amount of time off, quit a job or — by a small margin — turn down a promotion in order to care for a child or family member.” Forty-two percent of mothers indicated they had reduced their work hours to care for a child or family member, compared with 28 percent of fathers.

As to women returning home for the benefit of their children, in 2012, 29 percent of mothers with kids under 18 stayed home. This compares to 1999 when the figure dipped to a low of 23 percent. According to Meckler, “The share of stay-at-home mothers is now higher than it was during the recession in 2008, when it reached 26%. About 6% of moms say they are home because they can’t find a job, up from 1% in 2000.”

Stay-at-home moms seem to have more time for housework, childcare, leisure, and sleep.

Pew sees this trend, if that is what it is, arising from a mix of economic, demographic, and social factors including immigration. Eighty-five percent of married stay-at-home mothers indicated they did not work outside the home in order to care for their families and not because of disability, school, or inability to find employment. This number was only 41 percent for single mothers and 64 percent for those living with an unmarried partner.

However, not many college-educated mothers are dropping out of the workforce for their children. In 2012, 21 percent of them were staying at home compared to 20 percent in 2000.

Charles Murray, my go-to guy on social trends, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, noted that the percentage of white women in the labor force rose from 40 percent in 1960 to 74 percent by 1995. Not much changed in the 15 years after 1995 with the percentage hitting a high of 75 percent in 2000 and standing at 70 percent in 2008. Murray also observed the differing trends for women with a college education and without.

So what are we to make of this uptick in stay-at-home mothers? First, it appears that the move of women into the workforce since 1960 is still the predominant trend, especially for college-educated women who probably have fairly fulfilling jobs and, according to Murray, are, at least in relative terms, in stable marriages compared to working-class women. They also have more disposable income for childcare, nannies, etc. Thus, the increase in stay-at-home mothers is at the margin to use the economists’ formulation. Still, that is where the action is, say the economists.

The differences between women and men are also interesting in terms of their relative willingness or unwillingness to prioritize family and children over work at least to some extent. Clearly, women put a higher premium on vital familial and social functions than men at least, again, in relative terms to economic ones.

Many economists view women in the work force as an unmitigated good — the more the better. From a purely economic standpoint, it is hard to argue with that proposition. But for those who view culture (and I include social, religious, and aesthetic formation in that term), a more pluralistic view of the matter is appropriate. Men and women, and their children, do not live by bread alone. You can’t live without it, but there is so much more to a flourishing, vibrant community than tangible, material goods. A parent, usually a woman, in the home, day in and day out, is essential for the sustained, committed effort required in shaping young hearts and minds. It isn’t a matter of “quality time” but just time and a lot of it. Moreover, delegating these crucial formative roles, especially in a child’s early years, to schools, nannies, or daycare providers can be an exercise in mixed messaging that can undermine the project of moral and cultural formation.

Most, but not all, women will continue to opt for a significant commitment to the workplace. But the recent data indicates a greater willingness to embrace tradeoffs between the professional and familial worlds, both of which are important to them. The challenge, as always, is in how to strike the proper bargain for the benefit of children as much as the family budget.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.