Mom's home -- for good

Posted: Jun 30, 2003 12:00 AM
Guess what? For the first time since the '50s, stay-at-home moms are on the rise. Ten and a half million children have full-time stay-at-home moms, up 13 percent over the last decade, according to the Census Bureau. And that is taking the most restrictive definition of a full-time mom possible: If you worked even one hour in one week over the last year, Mom, you did not make the Census count.

Gender-equity specialists, take note: By contrast, only 189,000 kids are cared for by a stay-at-home dad -- 105,000 brave male souls in the whole country. A funny thing seems to have happened on the way to the gender revolution. But what, exactly?

Were not full-time mothers supposed to have disappeared by the 21st century? Does not research show that most children in day care do fine? Why would any modern woman choose to stay home with her kids?

Danielle Crittenden wrestles with this timely question in her new novel, Amanda Bright @ home (read review) about an affluent career woman who finally decides to head home for good. Hilarity, and a great deal of angst, ensues. After years of indoctrination about the importance of avoiding traditional feminine roles, many women find, as one reader put it, "I am Amanda: I never thought I'd be home with my children, and I've had to sort out a lot of complicated feelings about that." Women surprised by babies.

There is one big difference between today's stay-at-home moms and those of the '50s: Women today make a conscious choice, and so do their husbands. To stay home today, mothers have to recruit husbands into the role of primary breadwinner, no small responsibility, especially if it is now considered a gift and not a masculine duty.

Is the strong economy of the '90s responsible for the new willingness of women to stay home? Partly, maybe, but the strong economy of the '80s had no such effect. My own suspicion is that this new trend is part of a larger, modest but encouraging shift toward greater commitment to marriage and family generally: Divorce rates appear to have eased, so women are less afraid to rely upon their husbands while children are small; rates of unmarried childbearing are beginning to top off -- a new awareness of the importance of marriage and fathers for children?

Marital fertility is modestly up in the United States, in contrast to virtually every other developed nation. The total fertility rate in this country has returned to replacement levels of 2.1 children per woman. And married couples also report a lower opinion of divorce and an increase in marital happiness.

Logically, staying home almost never makes any sense from the individual perspective. It exposes women to financial risk if marriage should fail. It reduces family income over the long haul (even a few years out of the workforce reduces women's long-term earnings). But then, by any of these measures -- safety, security, autonomy, self-interest -- having a baby makes no sense either. The same longing to participate in the great mystery of creation that drives men and women together, into marriage and baby-making, seems to pull many women from purely market relationships -- whether or not they also work.

I have nothing against working mothers. I am one. But something in me rejoices to see the deeply countercultural impulse of motherhood rising and winning over mere economic forces. Where will this lead? Not to Mommy Wars between moms who work and those who stay home, I hope, but toward a profound and shared recognition of the importance of mothering and of the husbands that give mothers the gift of choices.

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