More moms are staying home but not necessarily because they want to

stay at home mom chart over time

After decades of declining, the proportion of stay-at-home-moms has risen from a low a of 23 percent in 1999 to 29 percent of all mothers in 2012. Let the mommy wars commence!

JK. In fact, while many a trend piece would have you believe that all SAHMs are affluent, educated women who are choosing to stay home to care for the kids while their husbands work because feminism is a failure, the new analysis from Pew Research shows that’s decidedly not the case. While two thirds of SAHM do have a working husband, that may not be true for long. Twenty percent are now single, compared to just 8 percent in 1970. Very few are wealthy or highly educated. They are younger, less likely to be white, and more likely to be immigrants. A third of SAHMs live in poverty, compared just 12 percent of working mothers. Six percent say they are at home simply because they can’t find a job, which is up from 1 percent in 2000.

And even among the rest who are “choosing” to stay home to care for their families, the evidence suggests their options are pretty constrained. Pew identifies the ridiculously high cost of child care as one major driving factor. Average weekly child care expenses have increased more than 70 percent since 1985 to $148 in 2011. Meanwhile, last year we spent less on child care assistance than at any time since 2002. If you’re unable to get a job that pays well enough to offset the cost of child care, then it makes total sense to stay home. But that sure as hell isn’t much of a choice in any meaningful sense of the word. Indeed, most parents, of both genders, say they’d ideally want to work at least part-time.

In my feminist utopia, everyone would be able to stay home if they want and work if they want. Hopefully this research will help put an end to the endless debate about “opting out” and start a meaningful conversation about the policy changes needed to give all families real options. With work-family balance in this country what it is (non-existent), it’s debatable if even the few uber-privileged SAHMs are making a totally free choice to stay home. But I think it’s clear that the vast majority of the rest are definitely not.

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Frank

    I have great respects to all the mothers whether working moms or non working moms. If there are more mother stays at home than to work. Its a matter of their choice and not because they are weak. Mother’s know what’s best for their family. So if they choose to stay at home. They have valid reason.

  • honeybee

    Some of your points are a bit odd – you talk about not having a choice to stay home if you can’t afford childcare – but surely the families would know BEFORE they had the child whether they could afford it or not. So if they had the child anyways, it means they made a choice for one person to stay home. Similarly once kids reach school age (4 years old), childcare costs drop dramatically because school is free. So at best that explains only a few years of staying home.