Another salvo in the Mommy Wars

MommyWarsI'm fairly new to motherhood, with a 2-year-old and an infant. I recently wrote my take on the Mommy Wars -- that term used to describe everything from whether women should work outside the home while raising young children to whether to use cloth or disposable diapers -- over at Christianity Today. So I was intrigued by this front-page Washington Post story that looks at a new Census report dealing with stay-at-home moms. Reporter Donna St. George frames it in a curious manner:

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called "opt-out revolution" among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

The story shows that mothering full time at home is a widespread phenomenon with nearly one in four married mothers with children younger than 15 staying out of the labor force. It's worth noting that this figure does not include women such as myself, who also stay home to raise children. That's because I'm still in the labor force (I really have the best of all worlds, I think.) Also unrepresented by the Census definition of stay-at-home moms are mothers who work even a few hours a month or just one week out of the year, such as freelancers, those who run their own home businesses and seasonal laborers.

So what is this opt-out revolution? (Style note: do you need both the "so-called" and quotes around opt-out revolution? I'm not sure.) Well, here's how the story explains it:

The notion of an opt-out revolution took shape in 2003, when New York Times writer Lisa Belkin coined the term to describe the choices made by a group of high-achieving Princeton women who left the fast track after they had children.

It has since been the subject of public debate, academic study and media obsession. It has been derided as a myth but has never quite gone away in an era when women still struggle to balance work and family and motherhood's conflicts have been parodied and probed in everything from Judith Warner's book "Perfect Madness" to television's "Desperate Housewives" and "The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom."

The census statistics show, for example, that the educational level of nearly one in five mothers at home was less than a high school degree, as compared with one in 12 other mothers. Thirty two percent of moms at home have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 38 percent of other mothers.

As much as I love the idea of debunking a story every time a New York Times reporter pens a huge trend piece based on nothing other than anecdotal evidence from three of her friends, this Washington Post article in no way does that. Unless reporter Lisa Belkin said that all women who stay at home to raise their children -- or even that most women who stay at home -- are "high-achieving Princeton women," that is. And she didn't. Neither did, one presumes, any of the other stories alluded to above. Instead, these other stories discussed an increase in the percentage of women who choose to either opt out of the labor force or cut back on their hours to focus on their families. As I mentioned above, this article only deals with women who have completely abandoned the labor market.

The Post article goes on to say that a higher percentage of stay-at-home moms (relative to other mothers) live below the poverty line and smaller percentages of stay-at-home moms live in households with incomes above $75,000 a year. Again, this has nothing to do with proving or disproving an assertion that high-achieving women are opting out or that more women are choosing to stay at home to raise children. In order to determine that, we'd need to see longitudinal studies or, simply, data over time.

Instead we get quotes from folks saying that the census figures are a reality check against the notion of an opt-out revolution. Oh, and the only time-lapse data that is included in the Post story is this bit that undercuts the Post's thesis: mommy_wars_400

Historically, the Census Bureau's annual population survey shows that there are more mothers at home now than in the mid-1990s.

In 1994, 19.8 percent of married-couple families with children younger than 15 had a stay-at-home mother. Last year, it was 23.7 percent of families -- an increase that [Diana Elliott, a family demographer who is co-author of the U.S. Census Bureau report] said was statistically significant. "I don't think we exactly know why," she said.

Now, if the percentage of stay-at-home moms (in married-couple families with kids younger than 15) is increasing -- and it is -- that actually seems interesting. I wish the Post -- and the Census study purporting to debunk the opt-out-revolution theory -- had looked into that a bit more. Heck, since Census claimed that the whole reason they did the study was to respond to media reports about women putting their careers on hold, it seems odd that they don't know anything about this increase.

All this to say that I have a suspicion that women's decisions about staying-at-home to raise their children might have a few religion ghosts. The story explains, for instance, that Hispanic women are more likely to stay at home to raise their children than non-Hispanic women. Does that have anything to do with higher than average rates of Catholicism and religious activity among Hispanics? I have no idea. Census didn't break down the data that far, near as I can tell.

The report had some other interesting figures with some religious ghosts, too. For instance, parents in married relationships were more likely to own their own homes, have higher household incomes, be employed, and have at least a bachelor's degree. They were less likely to receive food stamps than other family types. And 94 percent of fathers who lived with their children, lived with the mother of their children. Only 74 percent of mothers who lived with their children lived with the father of their children.

It's almost like all that morality stuff that religious groups are shoving down our throats has some merit or something. At least it has some policy implications.

But as far as shedding light on whether women with small children are decreasing their hours or opting out of the labor force altogether -- much less why or whether they should -- this article doesn't deliver much.

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