Maternal employment has been the subject of considerable debate for many years. Women’s labor force participation rates have been steadily increasing since before the turn of the 20th century. In fact, over the past 100 years, the number of women who are employed for pay or seeking paid employment has increased from about 4 million in 1890 to almost 63 million in 2001. Furthermore, between 1980 and 2000, the paid labor force participation rate for mothers of school-aged children increased from 64 to 79 percent. For mothers of preschool children, the rate increased from 47 to about 65 percent. In 2009, nearly 60 percent of married mothers with children under the age of three were in the paid labor force. The percentage of mothers who return to work within one year after their child’s birth has dropped slightly since the late 1990s, however. This has led some to suggest that there may be an increase of so-called neotraditional families—families in which women opt out of the labor force and in which spouses prefer traditional gender roles. Evidence seems to suggest that this opting out may be the result of a weak labor market more than a genuine change in gender role ideologies or a concern with family well-being. Labor force participation among women who must work—single parents and those with low levels of education—has continued to grow.
I. Looking Back
II. Work-Life Issues Today
III. Husbands and Housework
There is a popular misconception that women, especially wives, primarily worked inside the home until the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s. This myth is largely based on U.S. nostalgia surrounding the period after World War II, in which women were encouraged to leave their jobs to make room for men and return to the home in fulfillment of their natural roles as wives and mothers. It should be made clear, however, that this return to homemaking and domesticity represented a reversal from previous, long-standing patterns.
In preindustrial America, almost everyone, including children, worked. Survival in agrarian economies depends on a stable and predictable supply of food; thus, all members of society must contribute in some way to food production. While some tasks were associated more with women than with men, there was considerable overlap in roles, and most work, including parenting, was performed by both women and men. Industrialization and urbanization led to an initial segregation of gender roles and of work. Men, single women, and women of color were expected to enter into the new paid jobs, while affluent, married women were expected to perform unpaid labor at home. This division of gender roles was supported by a belief system known as the ideology of separate spheres, which posits that work and family are separate domains and that each is better suited to the strengths and skills of either men or women. In summary, expectations for women and mothers vary according to current economic demands. Women’s employment is dependent on various social-context variables, including available opportunities for women, economic constraints more generally (on men and women), as well as the perceived rewards and costs of the homemaking role.
Despite economic and social changes, this ideology has remained deeply embedded in U.S. culture and in the minds of most Americans. It appears that many continue to believe that women’s natural place is at home. Even among dual-earner couples, it is more common for husbands to describe themselves as primary providers and for husbands and wives to describe wives as secondary providers or to describe their earnings as supplementary. Generally speaking, most couples consider housework and child care to be the province of women. As such, the domestic burden carried by wives results in a reinforcing cycle in which women’s contributions to the paid labor force are severely compromised, and their commitment to it is perceived as weak. In other words, if women perform more housework, they are less able to contribute to their jobs or careers. This inability to contribute may be perceived as an unwillingness to contribute and thus a lack of professional commitment.
Work-Life Issues Today
Both the family and the workplace are so-called greedy institutions, demanding a great deal of time and energy from individuals. In fact, in the United States the full-time work week is quite a bit longer than in many Western European countries. Furthermore, individuals often find that these domains require the most from them during the same period of their lives. That is, the demands of work and family peak around the same time. Thus, many women and men feel that it is difficult to balance the demands of career, marriage, and family. This is particularly true of women, because they are expected to be the “kinkeepers”—maintaining a happy marriage, a stable and successful family, routines, rituals, and extended family ties. Not surprisingly, balance may be most difficult to achieve among dual-earner couples with preschoolers. To help achieve balance, one spouse, typically the wife, may choose to limit the time spent in the paid work force. Other strategies include seeking more flexible work schedules, although historically in the United States flexible options in the workplace have been scant. Some spouses may opt to work from home. However, studies have shown that women who work from home contribute more to housework than do men who work from home. Another consequence of the inability to balance work and family is a lack of leisure time, especially for wives. In one study, it was found that while husbands tend to relax in the evenings or enjoy a personal hobby, wives tend to be focused on housework and child care.
Because a belief in separate spheres remains firmly entrenched in American ideals, employed women, and especially mothers, often find that they not only confront conflicting role expectations but also social disapproval. Approval for working mothers seems to be on the increase, however. A 2001 survey of women found that over 90 percent of them agreed that a woman can be successful at both career and motherhood.
Today, a majority of mothers are employed. This trend has prompted a significant amount of negative attention, especially from social and religious conservatives. The primary concern seems to revolve around the potentially negative effects of maternal employment on child development and on family relationships more generally. The current ideal and expectation for so-called intensive mothering requires that women be available and receptive to their children’s needs for most, if not all, hours of the day, every day of the week. There is no comparable expectation for fathers. Good fathering is normally defined as stable providing; thus, there is no contradiction between the roles of father and employee. For women, however, employment presents a challenge, at least ideologically, to the mothering role, because good mothering is not equated with providing. In fact, commitment to paid work is typically viewed as posing a threat to successful mothering. Women who wish to pursue both a career and motherhood may feel that they must choose between two opposing, mutually exclusive alternatives. The cultural contradiction of being a working mother has negative economic and professional ramifications for women. It has been found that not only does being married reduce the chances that a woman will be promoted, but being a mother does so as well. Women with preschool-aged children have lower rates of promotion than do other women, whereas the opposite is true for men. Motherhood has a definite negative impact on lifetime earnings—this is known as the motherhood penalty. This penalty has not declined significantly over the years.
Many of the concerns surrounding mothers’ employment are unfounded; there is little, if any, empirical support for them. The primary concern surrounds the effects of maternal employment on the well-being of children. Furthermore, this seems to have been prompted by a larger concern with the rise of women’s equality, threats to the masculine gender role, especially men’s role as providers, and what some believe are the long-term, negative effects of the feminist movement. For the most part, Americans are accepting of mothers’ employment if and when it is absolutely necessary to provide for basic necessities. Attitudes become more intolerant, however, of mothers who have careers and work for personal fulfillment. In fact, in recent years, there have been several instances of highly publicized cases in which children were harmed while under the supervision of a paid caregiver, such as a nanny. In such instances, it was the employed mother, not the hired caregiver or the employed father, who was held responsible for the child’s well-being. Rarely, if ever, are fathers implicated in such cases.
A number of research studies have examined the question of what effect, if any, maternal employment has on child well-being. Among mothers who work outside the home during their child’s first year of life, some negative outcomes have been found. However, many factors, such as the type and quality of child care, home environment, spousal attitudes toward women’s employment, and gender role ideology need to be considered as well. After careful consideration of many of the studies examining the effects of women’s employment on child outcomes, some have concluded that, in and of itself, maternal employment has little, if any, negative impact on child development or on child-parent relationships. In fact, some studies find that children benefit from maternal employment or from high-quality child care. Interestingly, a number of studies indicate that parents today spend as much or more time with children than in the past. For instance, it has been shown that, in 1975, married mothers spent about 47 hours per week with their children, whereas in 2000, they spent 51 hours per week with them. This increase seems to be the result of a decrease in time spent on personal care, housework, and marital intimacy.
Regardless of the child care arrangement, employed mothers may feel as if they are being asked to juggle and manage multiple roles—to do it all. The idea of the supermom is that of a woman who successfully manages a marriage, a family, and a career with time left over for herself. The reality is quite different from the image, however. Working mothers often report feeling overwhelmed with the kind and quantity of responsibilities they maintain. Not only are mothers expected to manage and execute tangible tasks such as meal preparation and transportation, but also psychological tasks such as planning and preparing for family routines. While husbands may serve as occasional pinch hitters, wives typically have an executive function, meaning that it is ultimately their responsibility to see that the household runs efficiently. Furthermore, the demands of the household are continuous and unrelenting; thus, household executives are never off duty.
Husbands and Housework
While women have made a substantial entry into the public sphere of paid work, men have not made a comparable entry into the private sphere of unpaid work. Even among dual-earner couples, wives perform the majority of unpaid labor in and around the home; this extra shift of work for employed wives has been referred to as the “second shift” or “double day.” Ironically, just being married seems to increase the amount of housework that women perform, as single mothers spend less time in housework than do married mothers. Because of the uneven distribution of household labor and child care, there is a considerable leisure gap between mothers and fathers; that is, mothers have much less free and discretionary time than do fathers. Employed mothers often report feelings of physical and psychological exhaustion. Affluent couples may decide to hire outside help to assist with child care, household chores, or both. However, research indicates that it is still wives who initiate and coordinate such services. Other couples may rely on older children to assist with housework. This may be more common among single-parent households. Over 40 percent of children have been in some sort of nonrelative child care arrangement by the time they enter school. About 40 percent of children age 12 to 14 and 8 percent of those age 5 to 11 whose mothers were employed were in unsupervised self-care arrangements. Self-care is more common among white upper-middle-class and middle-class families. Lower-income, single-parent, and Latino families are much more likely to involve extended family members in the care of children.
Encouragingly, husbands’ contributions to unpaid work have increased somewhat over the past 20 years or so. Husbands’ involvement in household labor and parenting varies somewhat by race or ethnicity. African American couples, for example, are characterized by greater sharing and more egalitarianism. This may be due to higher rates of labor force participation among women of color as well as more cultural approval for a communal approach to parenting. Participation in housework is generally related to the relative earnings of spouses. That is, husbands of wives who earn a significant share of the total family income generally perform more housework than do husbands of wives who earn very little. Ironically, men may actually do less housework if and when they become unemployed. This may be an attempt to reclaim or hold onto an already threatened masculine identity.
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- Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, and Gregg Lee Carter, Working Women in America: Split Dreams. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
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