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Attitude gap widens between working, stay-at-home moms

Enlarge image Enlarge By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
Isabel Kallman bakes brownies and helps her son Ryland wash his hands in their New York home. As founder of Alpha Mom TV, she falls into the working mom category. Many working mothers and stay-at-home moms would prefer to work part time, a survey finds.

 WORKING VS. STAY-AT-HOME
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By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

Just when you thought the mommy wars were over, a new study shows the divide has grown over the past decade between employed and stay-at-home mothers.But the study, released Thursday, also finds one area where both groups concur: Working full time is less appealing than it used to be. 

The research, conducted by telephone this past spring by the Pew Research Center, compares the responses of 414 mothers of children under 18 with 457 mothers in 1997 who responded to a similar Pew survey. 

Among working mothers, 60% now say part-time work is the ideal situation, compared with 48% in 1997. Among at-home moms, 48% say staying home is ideal, up from 39% in 1997. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2006, released in May, show only 24% of working moms work part time. 

Pew surveyed a total of 2,020 men and women in 2007 about the societal impact of increasing numbers of mothers of young children working: 41% thought it was a bad thing, 32% said it made no difference, and 22% said it was a good thing. 

Ten years ago, 38% of at-home moms and 39% of working moms said it was a bad trend. Now, 44% of at-home mothers believe it’s bad, while working mothers who believe it’s a good trend jumped from 19% in 1997 to 34% today. But 34% of working mothers still believe it’s bad. 

“There’s so much finger-pointing going on and that has to do with the guilt and the self-justification of the choices they make,” says Rachel Hamman, author of the 2006 book Bye-Bye Boardroom, about the choice to stay home. 

“Working moms are trying to stand their ground, as are stay-at-home moms. Sacrifices are made at both ends,” she says. “Working in the home or outside the home, there are things you give up.” 

Researchers say a combination of relatively new factors has intensified the split, including the trend toward “intensive parenting” at the same time employers are demanding more of workers. And, they say, mommy blogs contribute to these deeply entrenched feelings. 

“All of these things are putting women in particular into a kind of all-or-nothing situation. It’s kind of forcing a polarization,” says Pamela Stone, an associate professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York and author of Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. Released in May, the book is based on interviews with women who left the workplace; it suggests they had little choice but to leave because of increasing work demands and policies that were not conducive to families. 

Mary James of Simi Valley, Calif., in 1983 founded MOMS Club, a group for at-home mothers. She says the way mothers define themselves means there’s some room for overlap in the study’s responses. For example, she says she considered herself a stay at-home mother “even though all the time at home I was working in some capacity.” 

Joanne Brundage, founder of Mothers & More, a 20-year-old non-profit group based in Elmhurst, Ill., says the Pew study is a snapshot in time, noting that women tend to move in and out of the workplace at different times. Her organization began for mothers who left their jobs to stay home, but over the years has shifted. Brundage says about 55% of its 6,000 members are at-home mothers, with the rest working in some capacity. 

“What hasn’t changed, unfortunately, is the workplace,” she says. “Society is asking all mothers to do it all and do it better and better and they have their hands tied behind their backs.” 

The study’s margin of error ranges from plus or minus 3 percentage points to plus or minus 11 percentage points, for some of the study’s smaller subgroups.