Common Ground in the Mommy Wars

Megan Basham
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Posted: Jul 20, 2007 12:00 AM
Common Ground in the Mommy Wars

Some good news was released from the mommy war front last week. Though The Today Show and Good Morning America frequently fill time by throwing stay-at-home mothers and working moms into the ring to duke it out for their respective sides, a new Pew poll shows that they have more in common than television producers give them credit for. Namely, that neither group wants to work full-time.

Only 21 percent of working mothers report a preference for a 40+-hour work week, while only 16 percent of at-home moms say the same. Half of all mothers favor dropping out of the labor market altogether. These numbers pose a problem for feminists who spent the last few years arguing that the opt-out revolution is nothing more than a figment of the media’s imagination.

After peaking in the mid 90s, the percentage of married mothers in the workforce has consistently inched backwards. Rather than admit the obvious, that women increasingly favor cutting back their careers when their children are young, some feminists are employing their own brand of voodoo economics. Women aren’t opting out, they’re being pushed out, they say.

The Center for Economic Policy Research's Heather Boushey flatly denies that the decline in mothers with full-time jobs has anything to do children, claiming that it more a reflection of a post-9/11 economy that left mothers who wanted work unable to find it. “Higher job losses in the recession of the early 2000s have had the effect of making it appear that women—and especially women with children—are opting out of employment,” she claims, telling the New York Times a mere year ago, "Women did not opt out of the labor force because of the kids."

But now the unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, a near six-year low and lower than at any point during 1997 when the involvement of mothers in the workforce was at its highest. Job growth is also strong, with employers in major sectors like the healthcare and education fields reporting aggressive recruitment efforts at all levels. Large companies like Goldman-Sachs, IBM, and Pricewaterhouse among others are responding specifically to the mommy brain-drain, implementing flextime and generous leave programs designed to lure talent from the rich stay-at-home pool back to the office.

None of this, according to the Pew Center’s results, has made mothers any more enamored with the workplace. On the contrary, stay-at-home mothers have grown happier with their lot while full-time working mothers have grown more disenchanted with theirs. Ten years ago 38 percent of at-home mothers said not working was the best option for them; now 48 percent say so. The percentage of full-time working mothers that describe their situation as ideal has dropped from 24 to 16 percent over the last decade, and they are less likely to give themselves high marks for the way they’re raising their children.

Instead of applying their considerable influence towards helping mothers get what they want, feminists who do acknowledge the opt-out trend use their public platforms to harangue women. In her 2006 book, Get to Work, Brandeis professor Linda Hirshman accuses mothers who take any time out from their careers of laziness and squandering their political influence. Vanity Fair writer and frequent Today Show guest Leslie Bennetts tries to frighten mothers into full-time employment, warning them that their husbands are likely to die or leave them.

Is this all mothers can expect from academia and the publishing industry—spin, lectures, and scary stories?

The part-time arrangement the majority of moms favor shows a wisdom that respects the value of mothering as well as work and earning. It allows them to continue to use their talents in the public sphere while protecting their precious time in the private sphere. It also keeps their skills sharp and their résumés active for if and when they decide to fully return to the workforce.

Women are smart enough to know what works best for them, and despite the efforts of certain news outlets to exploit their differences, stay-at-home and working moms have clearly found a common ground. They tried the old traditional way that left them unfulfilled and intellectually stifled. They tried the career-first way that left them exhausted and emotionally conflicted. Now they have settled on a third way that allows them to benefit both the marketplace and their families. Rather than stir up childish playground shouting matches, women’s advocacy groups and the media need to find ways to support mothers’ choices.