Dispatches from the Mommy Wars

Are full-time working moms losing the battle?

The "mommy wars" between mothers who work outside the home and those who stay home full-time are mainly a thing of the 1990s, displaced from public view by other issues and other concerns. A new Pew Research Center poll showing a shift in female opinion away from full-time work and toward the home front may not reignite a major debate, but it does spotlight some fascinating trends—and raise some complicated questions about the future of gender equality.

The study, based on a survey of over 2000 people, found that only 21 percent of working mothers with children under 18 said that the ideal situation for them was to work full-time—an 11-point drop from 1997. While working mothers in 2007 were no more likely than a decade earlier to favor full-time motherhood (about one in five chose this as the ideal option), the percentage naming part-time employment as their top preference had risen from 48 percent in 1997 to 60 percent today. (In reality, only about a quarter of working mothers have part-time jobs.)

A similar trend emerged among stay-at-home mothers with young children. In 1997, nearly one in four said that they would have preferred a full-time job; in 2007, only 16 percent gave this answer. There was also a slight decline in the proportion of stay-at-home mothers voicing a preference for part-time work; not working outside the home was by far the most popular option among this group, picked by 48 percent—up from 39 percent ten years ago. Among both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers, the drop in preference for full-time employment was especially pronounced among those with children under five: 16 percent said their choice would be to work full-time, down from 31 percent in 1997.

As with all polls, a word of caution is in order: the margin of error within the poll may be high enough to call the trend into question. Thus, for the subgroups of stay-at-home mothers and working mothers, the margin of error was 11 percentage points. Nonetheless, it is likely that the poll reflects a real shift in opinion. Recent years have seen a slight drop in the percentage of mothers with young children who are employed outside the home, and other polls over the past decade have shown a rise in public support for full-time mothering. It's possible that what has really changed is not the degree to which women enjoy being at home or working, but the degree to which they believe these choices are respected by the culture around them.

The fact that more stay-at-home mothers are content with their choices today will be seen as a good thing by virtually everyone, with the exception of a few people like Linda Hirshman—the feminist legal scholar who argued in a November 2005 article in The American Prospect that the choice is bad for women and for society, perpetuating traditional gender roles and keeping women out of positions of power. (The much-maligned Hirshman expanded on this argument in a short book called Get to Work!) Hirshman's stern hectoring of women who refuse to subordinate their selfish desires to the needs of the sisterhood was doomed to fall on deaf ears. Yet the results of the Pew poll suggest that some concerns about the embrace of at-home motherhood are justified.

For instance, if the increase in full-time mothers' satisfaction with their life choices is a cause to rejoice, what should we make of the apparent growth in dissatisfaction among working mothers? Could their self-reported preferences, to some extent, reflect social pressure? No personal choice is made in a cultural vacuum. Ten years ago, many stay-at-home mothers may have said that they would rather work because they felt that society was unsupportive of their choice to stay home. Could it be that many working mothers today express a preference for staying home because they feel that society disapproves of their choice to work? The poll also showed that mothers who work full-time give themselves lower marks on the quality of their parenting than do those who work part-time or are not employed. Is this a realistic assessment, or a reflection of societal prejudice against full-time maternal work?

And let's not forget about the men. Sixteen percent of fathers with young children in the Pew poll said that their ideal situation would be to stay home with their children, while 12 percent preferred part-time work. While men are obviously far less likely than women to prefer these options, the mismatch between preference and reality may be even greater for men than for women. Feminists like Hirshman overlook the bright side of female choice: When it comes to work-life balance, women have far more options than men, including more freedom to choose lower-paying but more flexible jobs. Men are often trapped by more rigid social and economic expectations.

Some conservatives may be tempted to see the results of the Pew poll as a welcome sign of return to traditionalism. But public opinion on gender issues generally moves in cycles. A new generation may rediscover feminism, which has given itself a bad name in the eyes of so many people today, and resume a productive conversation on the work and life expectations of women and men, and the benefits to both sexes of more flexible, less gender-bound roles. One interesting finding of the Pew poll is that adults who were raised by working mothers have more positive attitudes toward mothers in the workforce than those whose mothers stayed home. This can be seen as a vindication for working mothers, or at least a vote of confidence from the children they raise. It can also be seen as a harbinger of a new cultural shift when the children of today's working mothers come of age.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason.

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