At age 36, with a bachelor’s degree and 15 years in the workforce, Erin is living the New American Dream. Lest you vilify her, trust that Erin is more than aware of how good she has it. “I do view that as being very fortunate,” she says. “I know a lot of people can’t make that choice without great sacrifice.”
According to a new partnered survey cosponsored by ForbesWoman and TheBump.com, a growing number of women see staying home to raise children (while a partner provides financial support) to be the ideal circumstances of motherhood. Forget the corporate climb; these young mothers have another definition of success: setting work aside to stay home with the kids.
For the third year running, ForbesWoman and TheBump.com surveyed 1,000 U.S. women in our joint communities (67% were working outside the home and 33% stayed at home with their children) about their employment decisions post-motherhood, and how their family finances and the economy affected those choices. You can find survey highlights here.
At a moment in history when the American conversation seems to be obsessed with bringing attention to women in the workplace (check out “The End of Men,” or Google “gender paygap” for a primer), it seems a remarkable chasm between what we’d like to see (more women in the corporate ranks) and what we’d like for ourselves (getting out of Dodge). But it’s true: according to our survey, 84% of working women told ForbesWoman and TheBump that staying home to raise children is a financial luxury they aspire to.
What’s more, more than one in three resent their partner for not earning enough to make that dream a reality.
“I think what we’re seeing here is a backlash over the pressure we’ve seen for women to perform, perform, perform both at work and at home,” says Leslie Morgan-Steiner, the author of Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families. “Over the past three to five years we’ve seen highly educated women—who we’d imagine would be the most ambitious—who are going through med school, getting PhDs with the end-goal in mind of being at home with their kids by age 30.”
Radical feminists–who’ve long put women who opt out of the work force on the defensive, espousing and that feminism is rightly about access to all opportunities, not adherence to one script–will of course take issue.
But as a choice-feminist, Morgan-Steiner sees the opportunity for women to make this choice and I agree. No feminist voice can or should make a woman feel bad for the decision to choose family over career. But from the perspective of a young woman who works to balance career and life (even without a husband and child), I feel there’s something more at play beyond a simple choice. Instead, I believe working women have been wedged between a clichéd rock and a hard place.
Ann Marie Slaughter worded the demands placed on working women beautifully this year in her Atlantic essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The myths of the happy, “have-it-all” working woman are not necessarily lies, she writes, “but at best partial truths.” No matter how hard we try or who we marry, having kids while simultaneously to achieve career success sucks. (Unless you’re Sheryl Sandberg, but I’m not even buying that one).
Carley Roney, the editor-in-chief of TheBump.com (and my partner-in-crime on this survey) says she isn’t surprised that women are opting out, given the pressure they face to achieve perfection in all things. “I think it’s all tied up in this Super Woman complex that we have,” she says, “When you’re at work, you’re not giving enough time to the kids, when you’re at home, you’re not giving 100% to the office. Something’s got to give.” It’s no wonder then that the dream of many women is to leave work to raise children while maintaining their standard of living.
But while our survey suggests that working women believe staying at home would be a luxury, Roney points out that the economy could be keeping their dreams from taking off. “It’s especially crippling to see women’s sense that, if it weren’t for the economy,” they might be able to realize these dreams.”
As one (working) mom of two told me, she may dream of leaving work to take care of her kids, but the (financial) reality of it is not so ideal. “Sure, if my husband made so much money that I could spend time with the kids, still afford great vacations and maybe the occasional baby sitter to take a class or go out with friends, I’d be the first to sign up,” she said. “So maybe while it’s a luxury I do think about, it’s not one I would want unless it was actually luxurious. I don’t want to be a stay at home mom who clips coupons or plans her weekly menu to make ends meet… If that’s the case, I’d gladly go on working to avoid that fate.”
Interestingly enough, most stay at home moms polled were not so quick to describe their “at-home” status as a dream. Of that group only 66% say the ability to stop working to raise children is a financial luxury for their families, and it shows: nearly 80% told us they spend less than $100 on themselves each month. A more concerning stat than the fact that eight out of 10 women barely spend enough to cover a trip to the salon every month? That money’s still an issue: 44% of stay at home mothers say their partners make them feel as if they are not pulling their financial weight. Would they be better off in the workforce? It’s possible; roughly 20% feel they’d be happier if they worked outside the home.
What seems like a “grass is greener” mentality between working and at-home moms is what Morgan-Steiner and Roney agree is the very basis of the Mommy Wars. “What every mom wants is time with her kids, financial security and a sense of identity,” says Morgan Steiner. “When you feel like you don’t have enough of any of those things and you see a woman who has made different choices than you, it’s easy to point fingers. We’re all looking for “having it all” in our own lives and not finding it… And that’s the moment when we start thinking it’s better on the other side of the fence.”