Recently, I visited with a childhood friend. She’d spent her first 10 years of motherhood working part-time in retail — a field that doesn’t interest her — and focused instead on raising her two children while her husband was the primary breadwinner. Recently, as we sipped coffee in her kitchen while our kids played outside, I was in awe of how much she lit up with excitement as she told me about returning to school to earn a master’s degree in marketing, with the plans to launch a new career. But then her tone turned hushed, and her excitement muted. “I know my kids should be enough, but they’re not,” she said with unabashed shame. “I need something for me, too.”
The answer, of course, is guilt.
According to Pew, 38 percent full-time working mothers say they spend too little time with their kids. By comparison, Pew found that just 18 percent of part-time working mothers and 11 percent of non-working mothers say the same. A poll on Workingmother.com found that 57 percent of respondents feel guilty every single day. That is a lot of working-mom guilt.
A recent Pew survey found that the majority of Americans believe it’s harder to raise children when the mother works outside of the home. But the paradox is this: As the majority of Americans believe that children fare better when their mothers stay home full-time, the majority of American mothers work for pay. A full 70 percent of mothers with kids under age 18 work outside the home, and 40 percent of these moms are the family breadwinner — the majority of whom are single mothers. Furthermore, studies unequivocally find that mothers, children and relationships benefit when moms work and earn.
So where does all this negative thinking and feeling come from? Before the 1950s and 1960s, women were financially critical to their families. Until those post-war years, women ran households when that was backbreaking, around-the-clock manual labor, and women worked alongside men in small businesses and on farms, which relied on labor of the entire family — children included. In 1970, just 40 percent of American children had a “traditional” stay-at-home mom, with a working husband. Today that number is about half that.
It’s time for mothers to abandon the guilt, for once and all.
The University of Maryland’s very important meta-study, "How Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend with Children Matter?” found that for children ages 2 to 11, it makes no difference the number of hours a mother spends with her when it comes to the child’s academic or psychological success. In fact, the pressure to spend so much quality time with children creates so much stress in moms that it may actually make us worse parents than if we just focused our time on making more money, as a mother’s education and financial achievements have a greater impact on her children than sheer hours spent together, the researchers found. Meanwhile, increasing bodies of research promote unstructured play time, and the importance of bonding with caring adults in addition to the primary caregivers — like other relatives and caregivers.
A Harvard Business School study of 31,478 adults found that in 24 countries, daughters of working mothers — for the most part — earned higher salaries and were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles than their peers raised by stay-at-home moms. For men whose mothers worked outside the home, they were more likely to help care for family members and spend time doing household chores.
As Julia Child said: “You can’t have fun without hard work.”
Exercising your intellect, enjoying the benefits that come with financial security and your own income, and spending time with other adults are all important and powerful.
I will say what you may feel to guilty to say: I often find endless hours with my children boring, stressful and fostering a sense of lack of control. Too much time with my kids makes me resent my kids, and crave more time at work, with friends, exercising, and with my boyfriend. I am a whole woman, who has many parts of myself, all of which need to be nurtured so all parts function well — including time with my children.
Ultimately, working-mom guilt leads some women to drop out of the workforce, take less-demanding and lower-paying positions. Long-term, they rarely catch up, and collectively, this keeps the pay gap alive and well. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a woman’s earnings plummet by 30 percent after being out of the workforce for two to three years.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, of the Atlantic article "Why Women Can’t Have it All,” brought to the forefront the “mommy tax.” Studies find that men and women earn about the same in their first jobs out of college, and women without children earn about 95 percent of their male professional and educational peers. But the mommy tax rears its head when women start having babies. Slaughter told the podcast Freakonomics:
The youngest generation of mothers have learned from previous generations — and redefining what it means to be a parent, spouse, professional and citizen. We know that young mothers are the most formally educated in all of history, and are more likely to work for pay outside the home than their mothers or grandmothers. Part of the reason why: The number of single mothers has skyrocketed in recent decades. A full 64 percent of millennial moms report having at least one baby when they were unmarried, and even 67 percent of millennial moms are college-educated. In fact, marriage rates are at record lows in the United States and around the world, and show no signs of turning around.
Millennial moms are also most likely to have children with men who are more inclined to share household and childcare duties. A 1982 study showed 43 percent of fathers had never changed a diaper. By 2000, another study showed this figure had fallen to 3 percent. Even better: Millennial parents seem to be doing a great job at managing guilt. According to Pew: Millennial moms were more likely than other moms to say that they are doing a “very good job” at parenting. 57 percent say as much, compared with 48 percent of Gen X moms and 41 percent of Boomer moms.