No Longer Marching Out To Work, More Mothers Stay Home

A growing number of American mothers are staying home to raise their children, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. Listeners share their own stories about making that choice.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Now we want to take a closer look at women who work full-time as stay-at-home moms. We have new numbers from the Pew Research Center that show the proportion of home stay-at-home moms in the U.S. has gone up since 1999. That number had been declining since the 1960s.

But between 1999 and 2012, the percentage of moms who stayed at home rose from 23 percent to 29 percent. Joining us to talk about this is D'Vera Cohn. She's a senior writer at the Pew Research Center and an author of the new report. D'Vera, welcome.

D'VERA COHN: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Before we talk about the increase, what was causing the decrease in stay-at-home moms?

COHN: Well, there was a real march into the workplace among all women, but including mothers. The first ones to join the workforce were women with older children, but then as time went by, even mothers of children younger than 6 joined the workforce. And the workforce was eager to have them for many years.

HEADLEE: And I had thought at a certain point, we reached the tipping point where you kind of needed the two-income family, to a certain extent.

COHN: That's certainly something that people say. But other scholars talk about how women were brought up as - certainly with women with college educations now assume that they'll work and have careers. And so even if the income isn't a factor, many want to work.

HEADLEE: So this increase in stay-at-home moms, is it among college-aged women?

COHN: Actually, no. That's the interesting thing. Overall, stay-at-home moms are less educated than working moms.

So the higher share of high school grads and women without a high school diploma are home than among college grads. So only about 1 in 5 college graduates is a stay-at-home mom versus about half of women who don't even have a high school diploma.

HEADLEE: What's keeping them home? Why are they making the decision, whereas in years past, they would have gone out to get a job? Why are they now choosing to stay home?

COHN: We think it's a complicated decision, and of course it's personal to every women...

HEADLEE: Oh, sure.

COHN: ...And many of the factors might be emotional and not, as the economists would like to think, rational. But what we've seen is an uptick in the share of stay-at-home moms who say they're there, not because they're caring for home and family, but because they can't find a job - about 6 percent in 2012 versus 1 percent in 2000. That's especially true among women without a college degree. We also think some of it's demographic.

There are certain groups where there are higher proportions of stay-at-home moms. I'm thinking especially of immigrants, Latino women and Asian-Americans. And those groups are growing as a share of the population, so if they have a preference or an inclination to be at home, that will drive the numbers as well.

HEADLEE: Well, we reached out to our listeners on Facebook about this report, and we actually spoke with Sasha Heddick (ph). She's in Grand Rapids, Mich. She said she considered going back to work but couldn't afford it. Here's what she said.

SASHA HEDDICK: I just looked at the job prospects. And it seemed that with the cost of day care, with the fuel expenses, that I would probably have to get a second car, I would basically be working in order to pay for the resources that allowed me to work.

HEADLEE: That was a common complaint even when I was in my 20s. What's tipping the balance now? Is it because of the recession?

COHN: Well, there's a couple things. We did look at the cost of child care, and it has gone up in inflation-adjusted terms, in real dollars over time. And of course it hits especially hard as a percentage of income among women who have lower income.

So there's some income groups where as much as 40 percent of what you make might go to child care. Now you might also be eligible for a subsidy, but the point is it's going to be a harder job for you to make enough money to cover that child care.

HEADLEE: We also spoke with Ally Bender (ph). And is a Harvard grad, so clearly college-educated, probably expensively college-educated. She lives in Coral Springs, Fla., and she said she felt conflicted about deciding to stay at home when her daughter was 10 months old. Take a listen.

ALLY BENDER: Not a lot of my college friends were home with kids. They were all doing really exciting things in the corporate world or working for nonprofits. And I felt a little bit like an underachiever in some ways, that I had spent all this time and money and energy on my two degrees and that I wasn't really using them in the traditional sense of the word. But at the same time, I felt like I was making such a difference to my daughter.

HEADLEE: Is there growth in those kind of decisions, choosing to stay home because you feel like that's a better thing for your children?

COHN: Well, we don't have a lot of data. The data we do have show that when women are asked why they're not in the workplace, a shrinking share say they're home to care for home and family. That's certainly true of a majority of single stay-at-home moms.

But we're finding that even among married stay-at-home moms with working with husbands that a shrinking share say they're home to care for home and family and a growing share either are home because they can't find a job, they're ill or disabled, or enrolled in school.

HEADLEE: Let me give you some more statistics from a government agency, in this case, the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And they found recently that women with children under the ages of 18 earn less than women without children, while men with kids earn more than men without kids.

And in fact, women generally make less money for every child they have, even after you account for factors like taking time off for child-rearing and career choice. To what extent does this play into it, that you have to calculate for the fact that, as a female, you're going to make less if you have kids?

COHN: And even if there weren't some unexplained portion that people think could be due to things like discrimination, the fact is if you're stepping back from the workplace, either for part-time work or being out of the workplace, you're going to lose money anyway. You know, it's interesting.

We surveyed women - or parents anyway - and asked, have you ever stepped back, reduced your hours or taken time off to care for a child or family member? And a fairly hefty proportion said they had - I think about 4 in 10 moms. And then we asked, did you regret that decision in any way, even though it may have cost you some money? And the answer overwhelmingly was no.

HEADLEE: What do we know about the difference in outcomes or do we? When you look at these statistics and you say the number of stay-at-home moms is going up, what does that tell us about family units and children?

COHN: Well, you can look at it from how many children are being cared for by different types of moms. And certainly compared with, say, 1970, we still have a smaller share being cared for by moms at home or dads at home.

And we find that the American public is a little conflicted about this, that although there's overall support for working women and working mothers, the American public does think it makes it harder to raise a child if a mom is in the workplace. And when we asked, is a child better off with a parent at home or just as well off if both parents work, 60 percent of the public said a child is better off with one parent at home.

HEADLEE: The pendulum could swing the other way, right? If the recession turns around, if jobs get more plentiful, if women start to make that calculation and realize they can make more in the workplace than staying at home and not paying for day care, this pendulum could swing back the other way?.

COHN: Well, we do find that most women say they'd like to work either full-time or part-time. So I don't think that we'll see the share of moms at home rise to a - perhaps even the number that - the share that it was in 1970 when about half of moms were home. There is a preference for part-time work.

People would like to try to make it balance out a little better than they might be able to with a full-time job. But even most stay-at-home moms we find say they would prefer to work either part-time or full-time.

HEADLEE: Last question for you. What about a stay-at-home dads?

COHN: Yeah, this is a very interesting topic, and stay tuned. I think we'll be doing more work on this. We think that that number has gone up. We did a little bit of analysis and found that about 6 percent of dads there are married or have a partner are at home with their children. And we'd like to take a closer look at who they are and why they're there.

HEADLEE: D'Vera Cohn is senior writer for the Pew Research Center. She was with us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks so much.

COHN: Thanks for having me.

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