A new study by the Pew Research Center says that a record number of American women are now the sole or primary breadwinners in their families: Moms now "keep finances afloat" in 40 percent of households with children, up from just 11 percent in 1960, the study says. Many of these families have single moms at the helm, but Pew also says that a growing number are married mothers who make more than their husbands. I read this study and thought: Great: But how and why are they doing it?
The system still isn't set up for moms — scratch that, parents — to have thriving careers. (I wrote about this here.) Working hard costs money. Daycare costs are pricy; nannies are even pricier. Many of my friends and I have managed to cobble together some kind of arrangement that involves elaborate systems of carpooling, parental help, daycares with short waiting lists, nanny shares, and the kindness of friends who act as babysitters. It works, sort of, but it's hardly ideal. And we almost always feel guilty: We're either short-changing work or our kids. Or else we're sitting in traffic. (Pew calls these women "breadwinner wives," which sounds like it could be Bravo reality show.)
According to the study, roughly 3 in 4 adults said the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children. I think this shouldn't be framed as a question of "women working for pay," but "parents working for pay." The ambivalence about balancing career with parenting, though, comes from an honest place. (At some point, hopefully "women" and "primary caregiver" won't be synonymous.) In the purest logistical sense, who has enough hours in the day to do both exceptionally well? If any of you have the secret, I'd love tips.
The survey also reveals a baffling statistic: About 45 percent of women say children are better off if their mother is at home, and 38 percent say children are just as well off if the mother works. Men are a bit more leery, with 57 percent saying children are better off if their mother is at home, while 29 percent say they are just as well off if she works.
But working isn't a sentimental choice; it's often a financial one. Pew can crunch the numbers and ask as many hypothetical questions as they want, but the very real question remains: What about families who have no choice but for both parents to work? Living in Boston especially, where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation, two-career families are the norm because they have to be, not because people are trying to make a statement as social-progress pioneers. In my hometown, Arlington, I've spent months prowling real-estate ads for a respectable abode that costs less than half a million dollars. It's an exercise in frustration. I'm not alone. (I wrote about the ego-bruising process of home-buying in a recent article for the Globe and got tons of frustrated "me too" e-mails about it.)
While it's easy to frame going back to work or staying home as some kind of choice, for many people it's simple math: Both parents need to work to live in this crazy region. Or one parent has to stay home because the cost of daycare outweighs their paycheck. I'm not sure if these statistics paint a picture of women's progress, or just show that women are being painted into a corner.
Finally, I wish dads were given their due. So much has been analyzed about women entering, returning to, or opting out of the workforce. Fathers want to be part of the child-care puzzle, too, but as long as "women in the workplace" remains a marquee media moment, dads are nudged out of the picture. I'd love to see more focus placed on dads who opt to earn less to work part time and stay home to care for their children, dads who opt out of working altogether (if they can afford it), or workplaces that look favorably on dads who have to leave for soccer games and doctors' appointments. Parenting is a gender-neutral enterprise, or should be. Takes two to make the kid.
At its best, the rise of working mothers will hopefully create a generation of advocates who understand how very hard working and parenting can be. But as we read statistics about working mothers' salaries rising, I hope we don't forget the price that ordinary moms and dads have to pay to juggle both. Working, for many, is not a choice. It's a necessity.
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