What People Really Think About Working Moms

Beneath that Pew study we all heard about this week lies a telling critique: people disapprove of moms who work if their child care is bad

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The Pew Research Center made headlines this week, with the release of a report showing that mothers are now breadwinners in fully 40% of American homes. The finding set off a storm of excited debate, even though, in truth, the “new” statistic wasn’t in any sense news: the proportion of breadwinner moms — women who earn as much or more than their partners or are single mothers providing the sole income for their families — actually crossed the 40% threshold back in 2010, as Heather Boushey and Sarah Jane Glynn of the Center for American Progress have previously reported.

What was notable — and surprising and more than a bit disheartening, on its face — was some new information about what Americans seem to feel about all those hard-striving, moneymaking mothers. Researchers Wendy Wang, Kim Parker and Paul Taylor found that a majority of people appear to disapprove of them: 74% of adults say that the increasing number of mothers working for pay has made it harder to raise children, and 51% agree that children are better off if their mother is home and doesn’t hold a job.

(MORE: Read TIME’s complete coverage on Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In)

This finding of so much negativity toward working mothers was disturbing. And it was odd, as well. For it seemed to contradict other recent studies, like the much larger General Social Survey, which in 2010 found 75% of Americans in agreement with the statement that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work,” and 65% saying that even preschool-aged children were not likely to suffer if their mothers worked outside the home. Even allowing for the variability in survey results that differently worded questions can create, the gap in attitudes was strange. As was the fact that this week’s survey seemed to contradict another recent piece of Pew’s own research, a study that had found in 2012 that fully 79% of Americans “reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles.”

A large proportion of Americans, then, appear to have problems with working motherhood, but not with … working mothers. What does this mean? What message are respondents trying to convey to pollsters?

Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson, professors of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and at New York University, respectively, have some interesting ideas. Long curious to explore what’s going on in people’s heads when they emit opinions on working motherhood, they recently set out to parse and identify the expectations, associations and assumptions underlying those opinions. Instead of simply asking respondents what their feelings were about working mothers per se, they designed a study that presented a variety of scenarios — whether a mother was satisfied with her child care, liked her job and had a family dependent upon her income, for example — and then charted how respondents’ opinions of a mother’s work changed in accordance with those changing conditions.

(MORE: The Motherhood Penalty: We’re in the Midst of a ‘Mom-Cession’)

What they found is highly enlightening: people’s answers vary substantially according to a mother’s life circumstances, ranging from truly overwhelming support for her work when she has good child care, likes her job and needs to earn money; to extremely meager support if her child care is bad, she doesn’t need money and/or doesn’t like her job.

The fact that most Americans do not have access to high-quality child care, Jacobs told me this week, undoubtedly plays a very large role in driving survey results that find that people in our country, despite their positive feelings toward contemporary women’s changed lives, remain highly ambivalent about two-income families. “The people surveyed in the Pew report assume there are problems with child care — and that’s right,” Jacobs said.

These are enormously important findings — for they add evidence to a feeling I’ve often had of late, listening to and participating in discussions and debates about women’s roles, “leaning in,” and changes to American family life. I’ve sensed that the “mommy-wars” mentality of the 1990s is finally, thankfully, a thing of the past. There’s something pretty close to a consensus now in America that women’s lives, even in the motherhood years, involve multiple roles, and that this multiplicity of identities is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. There’s also a clear consensus that the lives of working families are unacceptably tough. (Nearly three-quarters of Americans now say that they, their neighbors, and their friends experience hardship in balancing work, family, and professional responsibilities at least somewhat often.) That body of agreement doesn’t mean that our culture wars are over; in this area, at least, the battle lines have just shifted. Rather than fighting about what mothers should (or should not) do, we’re now deeply divided about what society — and our government in particular — should (or should not) do to support them.

(MORE: When ‘Flex Time’ Means Ripping Off Workers)

The fact that American attitudes have evolved in this way — that we’re thinking clearly now about the problematic conditions in which working families muddle through their lives, and not continuing to obsessively focus on the good or bad “choices” that mothers make — means that we’ve conceivably reached a true turning point in our country. It means that — despite the seeming hopelessness of our fatally divided Congress — this could potentially be a very promising time to at least start a meaningful conversation about solutions and change. Universal public education for children under age 5 is on the table, with White House backing, for the first time since the very early 1970s. Two states — California and New Jersey — have paid family-leave programs in operation; in the state of Washington, such a program is awaiting implementation, and a handful of other states are now exploring how they might provide paid leave as well. And there are a number of high-profile female members of the U.S. House and Senate eager to push forward a legislative agenda centered on improving the lives of American families.

Working parenthood does not have to be a painful, anxiety-and-guilt-inducing, seemingly intractable problem in our country. It’s only politics that makes it so.