The divide between working and stay-at-home mothers has always been over-hyped. The term "mommy wars" doesn't really describe the way mothers relate to one another. In fact, it never created the stir feminists expected and serves mostly as a debate topic for morning television. All parents in a community strive to keep up with their kids' busy schedules, and the name of the game is cooperation -- not war.
Some new statistics show that the preferences of employed mothers and those who stay home full time are not all that different and that the gap between them is closing. A recent study by the Pew Research Center reveals that relatively few employed mothers (21 percent) report a preference for a 40-hour-plus week. Sixteen percent of stay-at-home moms say they'd like to work full time, down from 24 percent a decade ago. Half of all moms would drop out of the workforce altogether if they could, and even highly paid women are leaving the workforce to spend more time with their families.
The real story in the Pew study is mothers' preference for part-time work. Sixty percent of employed mothers prefer part-time employment to full-time work or no work. The appeal of part-time employment crosses income and education divides. The proportion of mothers who see working part time as their best option has jumped 12 percent in the last 10 years.
Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based research group Families and Work Institute, attributes this change to the entrance of Generation X into the picture. Gen-Xers, she said, "are more family-centric" than boomers are. But there's more to the story:
Even though 60 percent of employed mothers find part-time work more appealing than either full-time work or no work, labor statistics show that only 24 percent of those women actually have part-time hours. Many companies are responding to the mommy brain drain by implementing part-time and flex-time schedules and generous leave policies. But the latest stats show that these changes have not caught up with the demand for part-time work.
In addition, mothers who stay home are increasingly happy with that situation. Ten years ago, 39 percent of at-home mothers said not working was the best option for them. Today, 48 percent say so. The good economy is a factor here. With 4.6 percent unemployment, businesses are scrambling to devise plans to draw mothers back into the workforce.
The Pew report and other studies provide clear evidence that most women want what the early feminists insisted women don't want -- or shouldn't want: part-time work, a "mommy track," sequencing and, yes, full-time homemaking. In her groundbreaking 1963 book, "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan marginalized housewives by degrading their role. She described the housewife as a "parasite" and homemaking as an activity that did not require adult capabilities or much intelligence. Her "problem that has no name" had a simple answer: Get out of the house. Many women did just that.
Friedan built upon many of the ideas expressed in French writer Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," which made waves when it hit the U. S. in 1953. Its central thesis, that women occupied a secondary status in relation to men, resonated, but de Beauvoir's fix was radical. She wrote that "No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. … Women should not have that choice precisely because, if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one."
Fifty years later, this choice in favor of mothering at home still scares some modern feminists like Vanity Fair writer Leslie Bennetts. In her book "The Feminine Mistake" and during her frequent appearances on "The Today Show," Bennetts scolds stay-at-home moms for giving up the financial independence their ERA forbears fought so hard to win. She warns full-time mothers that they are vulnerable because their husbands are likely to die or leave them. Brandeis University Professor Linda Hirshman, in her 2006 book "Get to Work," contends that mothers who put their careers on hold to raise kids are squandering their political influence. Evidently she never stopped to think that a mother's influence on her kids might trump her need for "political influence."
Feminists like "political influence" because it translates into things they think all women need, such as government day care and paid family leave. But mothers who spend at least part of the day at home with their children don't need these things, and most taxpayers don't want to pay for them.
All mothers do not want the same work/home balance. It's a rare mother who can "have it all" without feeling exhausted and emotionally conflicted. One more finding from the Pew study pinpoints the reality that most feminists ignore: Only 10 percent of mothers surveyed who work full time gave themselves the highest rating as a parent. Children need time, and mothers know it.
(c) 2007 Baptist Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Penna Dexter is a board of trustee member with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a conservative activist and an announcer on the syndicated radio program "Life on the Line" (information available at www.lifeontheline.com). She currently serves as a consultant for KMA Direct Communications in Plano, Texas, and as a co-host of "Jerry Johnson Live," a production of Criswell Communications. She formerly was a co-host of Marlin Maddoux's "Point of View" syndicated radio program.