But in interviews, several women said that the choice to suspend their careers to focus on young children was not forced on them but something they had welcomed. Many of these comments suggested some 21st-century amalgam between old gender stereotypes and a new sense of empowerment among women who feel free to navigate between the workplace and motherhood by their own compass. “Women are more nurturing,” says Charlotte Brummel, a human-services officer for a nonprofit in West Seneca Falls, N.Y. “Some women are just built to nurture, or we’re raised thinking that we’re supposed to be that way. There’s a learning curve involved with taking care of children, and guys are afraid to screw up. With my son, his first day in the hospital [after being born], when he spit up, I didn’t ask what to do. Dr. Spock didn’t tell me what to do about this. And not even a few days later, one of the nurses asked me if he was my first, and when I said, ‘Yes’, they were like, ‘Well, you seem so calm!’ I figured he was a newborn baby, and there was only so much you could do. I just kind of fell into the role.”
And the poll presents striking evidence that in the families with working women, couples are renegotiating responsibilities at home. About half of working women with children under 18 said they shared child care about equally with their spouse (compared, recall, with just 33 percent of all women with children). So did about half of men and women in two-earner households. In that vein, a striking 47 percent of men, as well as 33 percent of women, in two-income households said they staggered their work schedules to ensure that one spouse is available to watch the children. Working men without a college degree were the most likely to report such shift-juggling. Women were also more likely than men to report that they manage the finances in their household—and working mothers were slightly more likely than women overall to say they control the checkbook. Nearly two-thirds of men and women in the workforce also gave their employers good marks for helping them balance their responsibilities at home.
Those polled don’t report a big increase in the use of organized child care compared with their own childhood. Both men and women in the survey split about evenly among those who said their own children spent more, less, and about the same time in organized child care as they did when they were young.
Still, there’s no question that child care outside of the home remains a source of ambivalence for many Americans. Those polled divided nearly in half when asked if child care was “mainly a positive experience” for children and their parents or “mostly a negative experience.” Women and men divided almost evenly on the question. Working women with young children were predominantly positive: 54 percent of them said they considered child care a positive experience, compared with just 35 percent who did not. Stay-at-home mothers with children younger than 18 gave child care more negative reviews, but not vastly so. Even a plurality of women older than 50 viewed child care as a net positive.
The precarious balance of opinion on organized child care was one of several ways in which the poll recorded anxiety about parents’ ability to meet the demands of work and family. Asked which occurs more often, about three-fifths of men and women said that work obligations interfered with family life, while only about one-fifth said that family needs more frequently interfered with work. The sense that work took away from family life was even higher for the most affluent families than for those of more modest means.
The response to a related question, especially among women, underscored the feeling of squeeze. The survey asked those who are in the workforce, or whose spouses work, whether they would choose to work more hours to generate more income, or fewer hours to spend more time with their families, even if that meant less income. Women, by almost 2-to-1, said they would prefer to work less; a slimmer 52 percent of men also picked that option. A resounding 63 percent of working men and women with children under 18 said they would prefer more time rather than more money.
Yet for all of the strains, tensions, and ambivalence surrounding this new world of women in the workplace, the poll captures a strong conviction that it represented an irreversible tide—and one that has mostly improved American life.
One question noted that women now comprise more than half of the nation’s workforce, up from around 40 percent in the 1960s. Reminded of that change, 56 percent of those surveyed—including 58 percent of men and 54 percent of women—said that “this change is encouraging and … will have a positive effect on the country because the economy will benefit” from a workforce with more women. Just 34 percent of women and 31 percent of men said that this change “is troubling … because it reflects a shift away from the traditional family structure.” That’s a much more lopsidedly favorable verdict, for instance, than Americans rendered in an earlier Heartland Monitor poll on the demographic changes rapidly diversifying the nation. (See “Race to the Top,” NJ, 6/4/11, p. 24.) The results also point toward a truce in the fabled “mommy wars”: Women who stay at home with young children were slightly more likely than working mothers to describe women’s growing prominence in the workforce as a good thing. Younger women were the most enthusiastic; but, again, even a plurality of older women viewed the change positively.
Like many women who responded to the survey, Brummel, the human-services worker, has little doubt that she might have obtained more education and advanced further in her career if she had not devoted as much energy to her family, particularly caring for an autistic son. But like many of the women interviewed, she seems very much at peace with the decisions she has made and the balance she has struck. Above all, she sees the state of her career as a reflection not of choices imposed on her but of the choices she has made herself. “I don’t think gender has played into it,” she says firmly. “I know this because I’ve got several friends who’ve gotten married and chosen not to have kids, and are doing higher level work and making higher salaries. [But] this is what my priority is in my life. Instead of going to the gym every day, I come home and I bake cookies with my son. It’s no longer about me anymore. Instead of doing for me, I choose to do for us.”
Amrita Khalid contributed
This article appears in the March 17, 2012, edition of National Journal.