Should Mothers Work Fulltime?

Should Mothers Work Fulltime?


Oh dear, the bell’s been rung on another round of the Mommy Wars. According to a new Pew survey, more Americans think mothers shouldn’t work full time, and more mothers think that working part-time would be ideal. And without noticing that this "increase" falls within the statistical margin of error and might not exist at all, the news media have raced in bravely to explain that this means something about the future of a) children, b) feminism, c) America, d), the workplace, or e) all of the above.

I’ve written about the Mommy Wars and the opt-out myth elsewhere. (Feel free to click over there for some serious media critique.) Meanwhile, here are a few things to think about that I haven’t seen written about.

–What do the kids think? This survey was all about adults’ beliefs, guilts, and cultural attitudes, not about what the kids want from their parents. The social scientists who do ask the kids find that young adults who grew up in dual-earner households also want their own children to grow up with two working parents. However, those who grew up with full-time, stay-at-home mothers are evenly divided. Could it be that having nothing to do but hover over your kids isn’t necessarily good for you or for them? (Check out NYU Professor Kathleen Gerson’s research here.)

–The black women surveyed were far more likely than white women to believe that mothers should work full time. Now, here’s an interesting coincidence: according to social scientists, there’s a great deal of bias against black mothers who stay home–and a great deal of bias against white mothers who work. (I got this from an interview with Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management researcher Amy Cuddy; her results haven’t yet been published.) Society thinks it’s good if black moms work and white moms stay home … and so do those women themselves. Could it be that the Pew survey is measuring guilt and cultural pressure, instead of beliefs about what’s best for the families involved?

–Part-time dreams are just that: dreams. Workplaces more and more force workers into either/or choices: you can support your family financially, or you can spend time with your family, but not both. Moms are pushed off the job, and dads are pushed to work more. That’s loony. Surely it would be better for kids if they could see both mom and dad at home, rather than turning one into a full-time nursemaid and the other into an absentee checkbook.

As a result, the dirty little secret in hiring is that if you post a part-time job, you’ll get a slew of overqualified applicants: women who’ve taken a long maternity leave (say, a year or two or three) and are desperate to re-enter the job market. Part-time jobs are for mothers today what teaching and nursing and being secretaries were for all women 40 years ago: a ghetto for the brilliant woman who’s not permitted to follow in her chosen career.

4. Our national anti-discrimination agency, the EEOC, recently issued new guidelines saying that it’s illegal to discriminate based on family responsibilities. Check them out. If you feel yourself being sidelined because sometimes you need to take care of someone–your kids, a sick spouse, an ailing parent–you probably don’t want to ruin your life by suing, but you should at least know your rights.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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