Stay-at-home mothers — those allegedly latte-drinking ladies who spend their days playing tennis and getting their nails done; who are never late for school pickup because they’re already in the building dropping off teacher appreciation treats or reorganizing recycled toilet paper tubes — have long been the women we’ve all loved to hate.
But now we might just have to reconsider.
The Pew Research Center just came out with a report that turns the stay-at-home mother stereotype on its head in favor of a couple of much more thought-provoking truths. Namely:
1. Stay-at-home mothers aren’t “elite” women.
2. They aren’t really having a whole lot of fun.
The Pew report shows that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated than mothers who work; almost half have a high school diploma or less, compared to 30 percent of working mothers.
It also indicates that they are less likely than working mothers to be white, and more likely to be immigrants. More striking still: Fully a third of stay-at-home mothers are living in poverty, compared to 12 percent of working mothers.
Many, as has long been true, aren’t home out of choice, but because circumstances (read: no work, or poorly paid work and no child care) have chosen for them. Interestingly, in the wake of the Great Recession, they’ve become more willing to share this sorry truth. According to Pew, the percentage of stay-at-home mothers who will openly admit that they are home with their children because they can’t find a job has increased from 1 percent to 6 percent since 2000.
There is one way that stay-at-home mothers have it easier than working moms: They have more leisure time, and get more sleep. But the Pew research suggests they’re a whole lot more likely to be watching Real Housewives sagas (while folding laundry and/or feeding babies) than living them. Married or not, well-off or not, they’re largely on their own when it comes to things like cleaning up and taking care of the kids. In fact, the Pew report shows, being married actually makes their work load heavier; stay-at-home mothers with husbands spend more time on child care and housework and have less leisure time (six full hours per week less) than do their single at-home counterparts.
How could that be?
For Wendy Wang, the Pew Research Associate who wrote the report’s chapter on time use, the greater number of total hours spent on child care by married stay-at-home mothers points to socioeconomic factors. Married stay-at-home mothers tend to be better educated, she told me this week, and as a result are better versed in the imperatives of time-intensive child-rearing: the singing, reading, talking, and playing games that in-the-know mothers understand they must do. As to housework: The latest Pew data don’t provide any interpretation, though a layperson’s answer might quite simply be that husbands make messes, and don’t necessarily clean them up. And as for leisure, well, just because a man is present, doesn’t mean his home-laboring wife gets a break.
“You only have 24 hours in the day,” Wang speculated to me about what goes through fathers’ heads when they walk through the door and don’t lend a hand. “And if you’re working full-time, you only have limited hours available.”
Those available hours for helping out with bath time and bedtime and vegetable chopping are made even shorter if a man has a schedule heavy in television-watching. (On average, fathers enjoy about three hours more personal leisure time per week than do mothers, Pew reported last fall, and most of that time is spent watching TV. For reasons not entirely known, Moms are also six times more likely than dads to report they feel “stressed” while relaxing.)
In sum: Stay-at-home mothers don’t need to be objects of our collective, envious projected fantasies about lifestyles of the rich and unsalaried — but a lot of them do need our help. They need ESL classes and job training; access to work that pays a livable wage, and, among other forms of parenting support, access to affordable, high-quality child care.
They also, quite frankly, if married, need their husbands to step up to the plate and give them a break. Full-time child rearing and care of a home is work — unpaid, undervalued, often overwhelming and emotionally draining work. It’s work that, while revered by Mother’s Day cards, comes with none of the financial empowerment of paid labor, and brings much less personal empowerment, too.
The proof: At the end of a long day, just look at who’s watching TV, and who’s doing the dishes.
Warner, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the author, most recently, of We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.