I received a thoughtful response to my blog titled “Mothering Between Extremes” in May and I’d like to address this important critique. The person who responded makes the point that women may have fewer choices today because of new and important challenges. These include balancing the responsibility of motherhood with more education and a formal career, especially since middle class lifestyles largely require a two-income household. My reader’s response clarifies that if you want to be a mom today, you probably have to work too. Indeed, more than half of American families have two incomes.
Many more mothers have entered the work force in the last 30 years. In 2011, the labor force participation rate for married mothers with a spouse was 68.7 percent. The share of married-couple families with children where both parents work moved up to 58.5 percent in 2011 from 58.1 percent in 2010. For some, a new challenge comes with deciding whether to earn a second salary and pay for childcare, or stay at home and sacrifice other luxuries:
The percent of working women who have higher educational degrees is also staggering. In 1970, 77.8 percent of women in the civilian labor force had only a high school degree or less. By 2010, this figure was 33.2 percent. In 2010, more than two thirds of American women in the civilian work force had attended some college or earned a college degree.
Women face new financial demands and old biological constraints. Our priorities have changed, but in many respects our bodies haven’t, from the desk jobs that keep us sedentary to the reality that women are still most fertile in their twenties.
The person who responded to my blog notes that “for today's woman, options become ever less available.” And this may be a frustrating truth. While the idea to freeze ones eggs has become a reality for a few thousand American women, it’s a very expensive solution.
Many working mothers today have part time jobs. While the number of women in the work force has grown by more than 40 percent in the last 25 years, in 1984, just as in 2009, about a quarter of women were in part-time jobs. Part time work is one solution. This option allows many women to earn some money, but also be present and involved in a family life that many women want. Ann Marie Slaughter’s much talked about piece in the Atlantic notes the important change that companies can make for women in the workplace.
Longer hours don’t always mean good quality work after all, and a number of companies that understand the value women bring are conforming to their needs, even if many women continue to interrupt their careers to raise families (which continues to be the primary reason, according to economists, for unequal pay between men and women).
Last month an article in the New York Times titled Motherhood Still a Cause of Pay Inequality noted that there are policies that could help reduce women’s pay deficit by increasing flexibility in the workplace and easing women’s family burden, and that some professions have become more welcoming to women. The article points to fields like veterinary medicine or pharmacy, where business consolidation and technological progress have allowed for flexible schedules without a large reduction in pay, and women have flocked to those jobs. The website “Working Mother” produced a list of the top 100 companies in 2011 that accommodate working moms. It seems a new trend is emerging in the workplace to accommodate working mothers, and let’s hope it continues.