Issues of Economics, Fairness Shape Debate on Working Mothers

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.  Can a mother work outside the home and still take good care of her children?  This question has long been the subject of debate in American society.

And this week on our program, we examine the latest developments.


On a television talk show, two women look at one another with hostile eyes.  One says she knows the right way to be a mother.  No, the other says SHE knows the right way to be a mother.

The first one says a good mother stays home to take care of her children.  The other woman says a good mother helps her family by earning money.  She says a full-time working mother makes her time with her children more meaningful because there is less of it.

"Impossible!" the first one shouts.  Voices rise.  And so goes a unusually heated example of what some people call the mommy wars.  Even that name incites reaction.  Some find it insulting for such a serious subject.

The debate is emotional and deeply personal.  The arguments involve issues of equality, fairness and economic realities.  They also involve struggles with guilt and inner conflict as parents try to decide what is best for their children.

In America, seven out of ten mothers have paid jobs, either full time or part time.  These include more than half of women with babies or young children.

As many as twelve million children of working mothers are too young for school.  Two million of them in a recent year spent most of their parents' workdays in day care centers.  Other children receive individual care, either in their own home or someone else's.

Some are cared for by family members, and many go to a combination of places.  In some families where both parents work, they organize their jobs so that one parent is always home.

On one side of the debate are women who say mothers should not work, especially when their children are very young.  They say there are many good reasons why raising a child should be a mother's full-time job.  For one thing, they say, children in day care are more likely to get sick.

Some studies support their opinions, but others do not.

On the other side of the debate are mothers who say day care helps children learn social skills.  They point out that early education programs in many day care centers also help prepare children for school.  And they note that some medical studies show that day care helps children develop resistance, so they get sick less often as they get older.

Half a century ago, few American mothers with little children worked away from home.  But over the years, many families found they needed two earners to pay for their houses, cars and other costs of living.

The women's liberation movement in the nineteen sixties and seventies also changed American life.  More and more young women were college educated.  Influential feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan urged them to put their knowledge and skills to work outside the home.

Today, half of mothers with babies under a year old return to work within the first six months.  Some say no one would ever question a man's desire to succeed as an individual.  But others have no choice.  Their husbands do not earn enough to support the family.  Or their husbands have no job.  Or they have no husband.

The poorer the family, the greater the pressure on the mother to work.

Women with more money can face a different kind of pressure: social pressure.  Some people condemn them if they want to work.  Yet others condemn them if they want to be traditional homemakers.


Some commentators say the media are fueling the idea of "mommy wars" because it makes a good story.  But whatever they call it, this is a subject that women, and men, discuss on talk shows.  They write about it in newspapers, magazines and Web sites.  There are books on the subject.  These include Beth Brykman's "The Wall Between Women: The Conflict Between Stay-at-Home and Employed Mothers."

Businesswoman and writer Leslie Morgan Steiner edited a book in which twenty-six women describe their lives as mothers.  The book is called "Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families."

Carol Evans is founder of Working Mother Media, which publishes Working Mother magazine.  She notes that many women with young children find different solutions in their lives.  Some telecommute to their jobs from home by computer, fax machine or even just a telephone.  Others work just part time.  And some leave their jobs for years to raise their children.

Business schools at Harvard and other universities have created educational programs to help prepare women to re-enter the working world.

If that is their choice.  There have been recent stories about young women at top universities who say they want to become stay-at-home mothers.

Employment of women with babies under one year dropped in the most recent period reported by the Census Bureau.  The rate decreased from fifty-nine percent in nineteen ninety-eight to fifty-five percent in two thousand two.  The Census Bureau said this was the first recorded drop since it began to keep these records in nineteen seventy-six.

A new mother from Bethesda, Maryland, left a good job at a bank to raise her child.  That was in two thousand.  "Children are only young once," she says.

Sometimes, though, mothers who decide to stay home find the change surprisingly difficult.

In nineteen eighty-seven, a postal worker named Joanne Brundage left her job to become a stay-at-home mother.  Soon she felt lonely.  She wanted to talk to other mothers.  But most were working.  So she formed a support group for mothers who had left the workplace.

Today, her organization Mothers & More has seven thousand members around the country.  They work not only to improve the lives of mothers.  They also try to educate other people about the value of the work that mothers do.

Other groups for mothers include Mothers of Preschoolers.  MOPS has members in the United States and more than thirty other countries.

Joanne Brundage made her own decision to leave her job after she became a mother.  Some women, however, have that decision made for them: mothers who lose their jobs or their chances at better jobs.  This is illegal, if a woman can prove that her employer violated her civil rights.

Many new mothers and fathers take time off under a federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act.  It lets an employee take up to twelve weeks a year of unpaid leave for a number of family or medical reasons.  Congress targeted this nineteen ninety-three law to employers with fifty or more workers.  But many smaller employers also offer unpaid family leave.


Research shows that married women who work still do much of the housework for their families. wanted to put a dollar value on all the work that mothers do.

So the Web site asked women to identify their ten most important jobs at home.  These include housekeeper, day care center teacher, cook and computer operator.  Other jobs include washing the clothes and acting as the family driver and mental health specialist. said that together these ten jobs would normally pay more than one hundred thirty thousand dollars a year.

Stay-at-home mothers point out that they avoid many of the costs that often reduce the earnings of working mothers.  Child care services can add up to thousands of dollars a year.  Working families also have less time to prepare their own meals, so they eat out more.

A young mother of two in Alexandria, Virginia, works in a hospital far from her home.  She says she could not do her job and manage her family without the services now offered for busy people.  Her life is too busy, she admits.  But she also says that the money she earns makes life more pleasant for her family.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson.  Caty Weaver was our producer.   I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember.  You can read and listen to our shows at  Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.