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Hard Choice for Moms: Work or Stay Home?

You've got a new baby and a mortgage to pay for, so should you go back to work or stay home to raise Junior? In a change in trend, more women are considering the stay-at-home option.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Mothers with the financial means have long had the choice to go back to work or stay home after the birth of their children. Today, however, more moms in all economic levels appear to be considering the stay home option - at least that's what some experts suspect when they point to recent population surveys, which show all female employment numbers declining after decades of sustained growth.

"The employment decline is apparent among all income groups, roughly equally," says Philip Cohen, PhD, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Employment figures for married mothers with children under age 6 have dropped 7% to 10% since the peak years of 1997 to 2000, depending on the income group, says Cohen. Overall, the work participation rate for all women dropped 1.5% from 2000 to 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is significant because, for four decades, women's labor participation rates consistently climbed, from 40.8% in 1970 to 57.5% in 2000. The phenomenon caused profound changes in American family, culture, and economy. The shift in direction has some people wondering whether or not the sexual revolution at work is over and what may have caused the change.

The 'Stay-at-Home' Buzz

In a 2005 study, the U.S. Census Bureau reported an estimated 5.6 million stay-at-home moms. That is a 22% increase from 1994.

"It used to be more popular and widely accepted for moms to work," says Cara Gardenswartz, PhD, a clinical psychologist in independent practice in Beverly Hills, Calif. "There's been a backlash, because right now, there's actually more status to not be a working mom."

Melissa Milkie, PhD, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, believes that many factors such as family demands, number of kids, age of the youngest child, and time constraints prevent many of today's mothers from entering or staying in the workforce even if they want to remain on the job.

On the other hand, Sylvia Allegretto, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute, says the recent dip in women's employment has more to do with the country's prolonged recovery from recession than with a change in women's work patterns. She points out that labor participation rates have decreased for men as well.

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