In 2003, Lisa Belkin announced in the New York Times magazine that an “opt-out revolution” was brewing among professional women who were leaving well-paid jobs to stay home with their children. Her prediction about the coming of a new era of maternal child care stimulated considerable media attention and coincided with the birth of “maternal feminism.” This movement was spearheaded by the Motherhood Project at the Institute for American Values, which advocated greater involvement of mothers in their children’s lives. Based mainly on evocative anecdotes about Ivy League graduates staying home to care for their children, the evidence of an opt-out revolution was dramatic but not entirely persuasive.
Indeed, the empirical data revealed only a leveling off of female labor-force participation in 1998, followed by a slight decline between 2000 and 2004. But among some young mothers, something else was going on. Labor force participation among college-educated, married women with young children declined by about 8 percentage points between 1994 and 2004. Although this rate of change was not trivial, some said that it merely represented the choices of an educated elite—those few who could very comfortably afford to stay at home.
However, the most recent data suggest that in regard to stay-at-home mothers the winds of change are in the air. Analyzing government data, the Pew Research Center discovered a reversal of a thirty-year trend in the labor force participation of mothers. After continuously declining for more than three decades, between 1999 and 2012 the proportion of all mothers (married and single) who are staying at home increased significantly from 23 to 29 percent. If this rate of change continued, by 2032 the proportion of mothers staying at home would be almost as high as it was in 1970.
But whether that possibility materializes remains to be seen. The decline in working mothers over the past five years might be just a temporary blip in response to the 2008 recession and sluggish recovery. Or it might signal the coming of a new era, not so much a long-term contraction in female labor force participation as a change in the pattern of participation, one which introduces a season for childrearing into the course of work and family life.
The recent decline in working mothers might be just a temporary blip. Or it might signal the coming of a new era.
There are good reasons for many families to move in this direction. The early years of childhood are a critical period for social and cognitive development. It’s a formative time when children can reap immeasurable benefits from the warmth and stimulating interaction of a loving parent. These years are also a period during which the demand for and economic value of household labor is very high. As any parent can attest, caring for preschool children is an immensely labor-intensive activity that does not cease during holidays and weekends.
Families seeking to create a balance between the daily investment of parental care in young children and labor force participation must essentially choose between two possible models. First, they can have both partners follow the male model of working steadily from the time of school completion until retirement, which requires the concurrent performance of childrearing duties and earning income. Alternatively, they can initiate a sequential pattern in which one or both parents’ efforts are invested in childrearing and paid employment at different periods over the life course. A 2013 sequel to Lisa Belkin’s 2003 article suggests that while this option can be difficult to navigate successfully, it’s what many families want.
Although in today’s culture mothers would typically be the (temporary) at-home parents in the sequential model, many families might well agree to have fathers take on the job of household management and child care during their children’s preschool years. This would make sense, at least financially, for the growing number of households in which women are earning more than their partners, which in 2012 amounted to 29% of all married, dual-earner couples.
What often does not make economic sense, for working- and middle-class families with a child or two of preschool age, is having both parents work. In 2012, the median wage of women working full-time was roughly $36,400. Simple arithmetic suggests that after subtracting the average price of quality daycare (more than $14,000 at the University of California Berkeley), taxes, transportation and other work-related costs, what remains of the second income would not substantially enhance the material lifestyles of many families with young children. Less costly childcare is available—but then parents get the quality of care they purchase, and children pay the price.
For families with young children, it is difficult and often not financially sensible for both parents to work full-time.
Material considerations aside, there is the social fact that it’s exceedingly difficult to harmonize work and family life when both parents work full-time. Here “harmony” is a euphemism for just surviving the pandemonium of a daily schedule that has parents up at sunrise feeding, washing, and dressing their children before sprinting out the door to the day care center; then, after a full day’s work, dashing back in rush hour to pick the kids up by 5:30 and hurrying home to make dinner in order to feed, undress, bathe the kids, and put them to bed by 7:30. In such households, much of parents’ little free time is devoted to shopping for food, buying kids clothes, cleaning, laundry, doctor visits, haircuts, and coping with pink eye, strep throat, and monthly ear infections.
Some dual-earner families manage all this better than others. It helps to have actively involved grandparents in the vicinity and a joint income well into the six figures. But those families will always be a small minority. As the next generation of young parents awake to the reality of the work it takes to nurture their young, we may yet see the dawn of a new era of family life, in which an increasing number of parents opt for the sequential model of work and care.
In line with this approach, as an alternative to subsidized public daycare services in support of two-earner families, a number of European countries have introduced an allowance to parents who provide in-home care for their preschool children. These policies balance some of the financial incentives for pursuing the concurrent and sequential models of work and care. They also revive public regard for the social and economic value of parenting. As debates continue here in the U.S. over paid parental leave and related issues, this policy option deserves greater consideration.
Neil Gilbert is the Chernin Professor of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life.