Betsy Hart

"Fewer Mothers Prefer Full-time Work" blared the headline of the recent Pew Research Center study.

As the respected Pew folks put it, "In the span of the past decade, full-time work outside the home has lost some of its appeal to mothers."

And the punch line would be ... Duh?

To paraphrase the findings: among working mothers with children ages 17 or under, only 21 percent say such work is the "ideal situation" for them. That's down from the 32 percent who said full-time work was the ideal back in 1997. Sixty percent of today's working mothers say part-time work would be their first choice, a quarter more than agreed with that statement in 1997. Another 19 percent say they would prefer not working at all outside the home.

Among stay-at-home moms, almost half say that not working at all is their ideal, about an 18 percent increase from those who said so in 1997.

"Preferences" and "real life necessity" don't always match up, of course, but lest some cynic argue that "no one wants to work if they don't have to," the same study showed that 72 percent of dads find working full time to be their ideal and only 12 percent said part-time work would be their first choice.

So this leaves us with:

A) It's not rocket science to discover that women want to be at home much or most of the time with their kids or, to paraphrase writer Danielle Frum, a lot of women have figured out that it's no "achievement" to decide things can be boring and difficult at home and trade that in, only to find out that things can be boring and difficult at work.

And yet:

B) There is this mythology that moms since the beginning of time have been spending three hours of floor time daily with Junior. The reality is, Mom was home — but she was typically working to sustain that home, and Junior was occupying himself, playing with siblings or just padding after her if not doing his own work.

And my own observation:

C) In our modern society of more convenient living and fewer children, some at-home moms today do have — dare I say it? — a lot of time on their hands, and they fill it by pouring themselves and their time and energy into their kids, or into controlling their kids, in a way that's probably not healthy for anyone.

Have you ever noticed it's typically not the mother of four or five kids who says, "I don't have time to go to the bathroom by myself"? No, it's more often the mom of one or two kids.

This isn't an exhortation to have lots of kids. It's an observation that when we moms are forced to be more "hands-off" because there aren't enough hands, the kids tend to occupy themselves or each other just fine. I think that's a good thing.

So it seems to me that:

D) Over-mothering "alpha" moms may be as unhealthy for kids as the guilty workaholic parents who spoil their child. The dreaded "helicopter parent" can come from either home.

The pendulum on work preferences for moms may be swinging "back" to being in the home. And I think that's great. But let's not idolize that situation, either. How about a middle ground? I've long thought it just makes great sense for almost any mom to find at least something, even if it's volunteer work, that she can do on a part-time basis and forces her to say, at least sometimes to her little one: "Honey, I'm busy."

I remember my own mom pursuing a master's degree when I was very young. I saw that her heart, her "center," was in her home. But I also saw her passion for learning and knowledge, and that she had a life outside — or rather, besides — her five kids. Her identity wasn't wrapped up in us.

There are some folks who think the latter really isn't OK. I would remind them that even the biblical, celebrated wife and mother of Proverbs 31 fame was out buying land and selling garments, according to the text.

We moms do well to remind ourselves and our children, in some fashion, that work in itself is a good thing. After all, it was in the Garden of Eden before the fall.


Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. Her column on cultural and family issues, “From the Hart,” is distributed each week to hundreds of newspapers cross the country. Betsy’s first book, "It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting out Kids – and What to do About It," was released in September, 2005, and was a top seller for its publisher, Putnam Books.