Stay-at-home moms get their due

Posted: Mar 18, 2004 12:00 AM

The cause of women's liberation just took a huge step forward. The mainstream media, in the form of Time magazine, has finally recognized as legitimate the choices of those women who decide to stay home with their young children.

In a cover story headlined "The Case for Staying Home," the magazine reports, without sneering or condescension, the trend toward more new mothers leaving the work force. This is an important cultural benchmark, because until now, the media, feminist leaders and other opinion-makers have tended to portray stay-at-home moms as a regrettable throwback to what should be a long-gone era of child-rearing. Now, perhaps, we are ready to honor the full range of choices made by women struggling with how to balance career and family.

The workplace participation of married mothers with a child less than 1 year old has dropped for the first time ever, reversing a 30-year trend. It fell from 59 percent in 1997 to 53 percent in 2000. Women have realized that "having it all" -- i.e., leaving their young kids with someone else all day long -- is not as wondrously fulfilling as they were led to expect. "Common sense is winning out over the ideologies of the 1960s and 1970s," says family expert Allan Carlson.

According to Time, it has mostly been well-educated white women over 30 who have accounted for the drop in working moms. Twenty-two percent of women with graduate or professional degrees are at home with their kids. One in three women with M.B.A.s is not working full time, in contrast with just one in 20 men. These women have the resources to eschew a paycheck. A generational shift has also taken place, as young women are less interested in taking orders from the feminist "sisterhood." According to one survey, 51 percent of Gen X moms were home full time, compared with 33 percent of boomer moms.

Many of the new stay-at-home moms have realized that day care might not be an adequate substitute for the attention of a mother. Time quotes one woman who left her consultant job to stay home explaining her experience exploring day care: "I had one woman look at me honestly and say she can promise my son would get undivided attention eight times each day -- four bottles and four diaper changes. I appreciated her honesty, but I knew I couldn't leave him."

The option to stay at home shouldn't be a privilege of the well-credentialed few. Public policy needs to make it easier for families to choose whether to have mom, or dad, stay home, rather than forcing both parents into the work force. High taxes do just that. About half of married couples with children in the mid-1950s paid no federal income tax, thanks to a generous $3,000 personal exemption. If this exemption had kept up with inflation, it would be $10,000 today.

Although the steadily increasing child tax credit (now $1,000 per child) has eased the burden on families, more tax relief will make it still easier for them. Meanwhile, the tax code's dependent-care tax credit, which is only available for parents who go to licensed day-care providers, could be broadened to include parents who provide their own child care. The tax code could make it easier for moms and dads to maintain home offices as they search for creative ways to spend more time with their children while still working.

But no one should underestimate the importance of the signals sent by our culture. Stay-at-home moms have been bombarded for years with messages disparaging their choice. Now they should hear something else: that staying at home is a great and admirable act of self-sacrifice; that a career is not the only venue for important and meaningful work; that it is not unambitious to want to give your young children the full measure of your energy and attention.

Then, women facing difficult trade-offs will feel truly liberated to make the choices their hearts and consciences desire.