The Mommy Option: 1 in 4 Moms Stay-at-Home

| Thu Oct. 1, 2009 11:31 AM EDT

Yesterday, the Census Bureau released its new report on stay-at-home moms, one that's now being hailed as proving the myth of the "opt-out revolution." The opt-out theory goes like this: high wage earning, highly educated women land promising and high paying jobs, only to leave them once they have babies. The trend has been debated, and now, if you believe The Washington Post, has been debunked.

This is seen as either a good thing, read: women are able to balance work and motherhood and carry on doing both without having to make tough choices to leave or give up parenting. Work/life balance problem solved, strong feminists can have their job, and baby too. Or, the report's results are actually much more complicated than that and mean that women who want to choose to stay home can't now for a host of reasons, that those who do have little choice in the matter (many of whom are also feminists, and all of whom are feminine), that more women are actually just losing their jobs, and that the data doesn't capture the true state of stay-at-home motherhood.

I open door #2:

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The report's take-home message, that stay-at-home moms are actually younger and of lower income and education (and less white) than the opt-out theory would suggest, does less to say that other mothers aren't making hard work/life choices and says more about the nearly 1 in 4 moms who do stay at home, that they simply don't have options to begin with (jobs to go back to, for example), the choices that older, more established workers and women have when deciding how to support their family and career.

And keep in mind that the Census definition of stay-at-home mom is rigid and doesn't account for all sorts of work/life sacrifice decisions women make:

For this report stay-at-home mothers are those who have a husband who was in the labor force all 52 weeks last year, while she was out of the labor force during the same 52 weeks to care for the home and family.

So if a woman freelances and/or works part-time and cares for kids during the rest of it, those moms aren't counted. Mothers who are in the labor force even for a total of 1 week, or have husbands who are out of the labor force for 1 week, or who don't report the primary reason they were out of the labor force as “to care for home and family” are considered office-working moms. Also, this eliminates single moms (other than the independently wealthy ones) from the equation, even ones who might find ways to stay at home. And whither lesbian couples? Is it surprising then, that under this strict definition the majority of stay-at-home moms are ones who may have likely never entered the workplace in the first place?

There are other tidbits in this report that are worth noting. For example, guess which household size has been steadily increasing its share over the past several decades? Families of uno. Since 1970, while family sizes of 5 or more, 4, or 3 people have been steadily declining, the percentage of families with 2 or 1 member have been rising. One member households have seen the biggest gains from 17.1% in 1970, more than doubling to 28.6 in 2007. Not so good for downsizing our cities and staving off global warming through efficiencies.

Also, this report focused on mothers almost exclusively, though there's a chart on page 12 that shows the stark contrast between stay-at-home mom- and fatherhood. Of all mothers, 17.1% stay at home full time; of all father's only 3.4% stay at home. Five times more moms than dads, whatever their backgrounds. Meaning the income inequality elephant-in-the-room is one not to be ignored in this race to define all the choices women do and don't have.

As The Economix' David Leonhardt points out, over time the report actually found an uptick in stay-at-home motherhood, from 19.8% of married-couple families with children younger than 15 with a stay-at-home mother in 1994 to 23.7% in 2007. (The Economix says last year but the Census report, though released now, covers data from 2007.) Which means that we should look, without the focus on opting out or not, at the forces that are contributing to the fact that moms are now in greater proportion out of the workplace than in it. If that's by choice would that make everyone feel better? Sure, because we value choice, but sometimes choices are lousy.

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