We are conflicted as a society about mothers who work outside the home. In just one generation we have gone from a time when the majority of mothers worked only at home to a time when the majority of moms work outside of the home.
Today about 70% of us believe that a working mother “can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children” as a mother who stays home, but as recently as 1977, only 49% of Americans agreed with this statement. Plus, we also continue to believe that it is best for a child to have a mother, or parent, at home. In a recent Pew Research survey, 60% of respondents said children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family, compared with 35% who said children are just as well off with working parents.
This contradiction is reflected in the media coverage of mothers, which idealizes and patronizes both stay-at-home and working moms; both groups are maligned. And, yet, are there really such stark distinctions among mothers? All mothers are working mothers. Some mothers have more personal choice than others because of financial resources, education or socioeconomics. All mothers want to do the best for their children.
STAY-AT-HOME MOMS ON THE RISE
The new Pew Study shows an increase in stay-at-home moms—29% of moms—up from 23% in 1999. They attribute the increase to the flagging economy. Six percent are at home because they can’t find a job. 34% of stay at home moms are living in poverty and nearly half are women of color with a high school education or less; many are immigrants. For some of these mothers, the minimum wage jobs available may not pay enough to offset the additional costs of child care, clothing and transportation. The percentage of stay at home moms living in poverty has more than doubled since 1970.
WOMEN OWNED AND HOME-BASED BUSINESS
Though this may be flying under the radar of the Pew Study, another possible factor in the increase of stay-at-home moms is the increase in women owned businesses. One just has to look around the internet to see the plethora of women owned sites. Between 1997 and 2013, the number of women owned businesses increased by 59%, a rate that was 1.5 times the national average. The only companies that have provided an increase in employment over the last six years are large, publicly-traded corporations and privately held majority women-owned companies. And, women of color have made remarkable gains. Sixteen years ago, only 17% of women-owned firms were owned by women of color; now it’s 33%.
It’s safe to assume that many of these women-owned businesses are home-based businesses. According to the 2010 Census, there was a 25.1% increase in home-based businesses from 1999 to 2005. More people also work at home, both full-time and part-time. Twenty-five percent of stay-at-home moms are college educated and some have skills that lend themselves to work at home. Others simply see a home business as the only viable option for possible income. Home-based businesses can range from my grandmother’s alternation’s business to the website that I have today. Both home-based and women-owned businesses may offer more flexibility in terms of child care. In fact, many home-based businesses are conducted with children under foot.
VALUE OF MOTHER’S WORK
Part of the way that stay-at-home moms are patronized is by assuming that they produce no economic gain. Time’s coverage of the Pew Report is entitled, “Bad News, More Mothers are Staying Home.” According to salary.com, however, it would cost $113,586 to replace the stay-at-home mom who works a 92-hour work week. (A working mom’s at-home salary is estimated to be $67,436.) Only 7% of women value a mom’s tasks at over $100,000 according to insure.com, which values mother’s work at $59,862, down from $61,436 in 2011. Both estimates are based on common tasks that mothers perform. It’s clear that the tasks a mother performs have value and would be costly to replace. You can calculate your own mom salary here.
Another value that the stay-at-home mom may produce is breastmilk. In my piece, “A Day of Breastmilk: $125,” I argue that the economic value of exclusively breastfeeding for six months is $13,440 based on average production and what milk banks pay for breastmilk. We would have a very different Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if we included breastmilk production as some other countries do.
I wonder if some of the increase in stay-at-home moms is accounted for by the Radical Homemaker’s movement, spearheaded by writer and farmer, Shannon Hayes. Her book, Radical Homemaker’s: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, has inspired a generation of stay-at-home mothers to turn their homes into agents of production, not just consumption. These industrious women grow their own food, can fruits and vegetables for the winter, make candles, keep backyard chickens, raise grass fed beef, weave wool into yarn, and resurrect a myriad of home crafts that add immense value to their households and save money by reducing the number of necessities that require it.
Women are forced to be inventive, as they have always been, in order to protect their children and their families. The increase in stay-at-home mothers tells us that many vulnerable mothers and children have no financial safety net and more than ever live in poverty. This tragedy highlights the lack of financial supports for US families, something that separates the US from all other industrialized countries. What many in the US congress derisively call entitlements are second nature in most other countries.
And, perhaps out of the desperation of hard times, some stay-at-home mothers are starting home businesses or women-owned businesses with mother-friendly work schedules. Others are literally running their homes like a business. All mothers are looking for creative ways to nurture their families while they make ends meet.
Peggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She founded Mothering.com in 1995 and was its editor-in chief until 2012. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of two.