May 9, 1997

Motherhood Today -- A Tougher Job, Less Ably Done

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Old Ways Work Best

Many of the problems and challenges mothers face today are related to changes in the lives of women and the evolution of the American family. The jury is still out on whether or not these changes are beneficial for society. Very few women (17%) believe that most divorced couples who split custody of their children can do a good job of parenting. And relatively few (less than 30%) say most single mothers, stepmothers and couples in which both parents work full time can do a good job. More traditional family settings are endorsed by large proportions of women.

As might be expected, women’s assessments of parents’ abilities vary by generation and family circumstances. In particular, older women are more skeptical of the abilities of two-career couples to raise children. Even those couples in which the mother works part time are viewed with greater skepticism by older women.

Working women, and especially working moms with kids under 18, are more likely than stay-at-home moms to believe mothers who work can do a good job at parenting. Nevertheless, whatever their current situation, mothers agree that the ideal setting for child rearing is one in which the mother is home full time.

Mr. Moms

While most women believe one parent should stay home, many say that parent need not be mom. Four in ten (39%) say it is good for society that more fathers are staying home these days, and a similar proportion think the Mr. Mom phenomenon is neither good nor bad, while only 20% pronounce it bad. Working women, including working mothers, are more enthusiastic about this change than women who are not working. Women over 50 are less supportive than their younger counterparts of this new trend (31% vs. 44% say it is good for society).

Many women are concerned that the increased number of mothers with young children in the workplace is bad for society (41%). Less than half as many (17%) think this is a good thing. Another 37% think it does not make much difference. Again, women’s judgements on this societal change are correlated with age. Women under 30 are much less likely to perceive this trend as a bad thing (26% vs. 41% of all women).

Perhaps surprisingly, college graduates are more negative about the increase in mothers working outside the home than those with no college experience (47% vs. 38% say it is a bad thing). This may be because these better read women are more aware of new research on the importance of stimulation and nurturing in early child development. Nevertheless, mothers who are career- oriented take a more positive view of this change than most other women.1

Generally, the survey found negative reactions to all the societal changes that strongly affect the traditional family structure. Two-thirds (65%) of women say more single women having children is bad for society, and almost as many (62%) take a negative view of more unmarried couples having children. A majority (56%) believe the increase in gay and lesbian couples raising children is bad for society.

Women take a less negative view of the trend toward waiting until later in life to have children and deciding never to have children. Only 22% say more women delaying childbirth until after age 35 is bad for society. A similar proportion (24%) have a negative view of more women opting never to have kids. Women are generally supportive of the increasingly common occurrence of people who were adopted as children seeking out their birth mothers. Nearly half (47%) say this is a good thing, 32% say it is neither good nor bad.

Kids’ Gone, Dog’s Dead

Women as a whole say they are satisfied with their lives. Almost half (48%) are very satisfied, another 46% are mostly satisfied. Those women most satisfied are largely mothers whose children are grown. Among women with kids under 18, those who are married or living as married are significantly more satisfied with their lives than single moms (51% of married moms vs. 33% of single moms are very satisfied with their lives).

For women with no children, marriage seems to be the key to satisfaction. Only 37% of unmarried childless women are very satisfied with their lives, compared to more than half (55%) of childless women who are married or living as married. Most women over 45 who never had children report they are not childless by choice but that their lives simply turned out that way.

For all women, whatever their current living situation, family relationships are most important to their overall happiness and fulfillment, with job and career ranking lower. For moms with kids under 18, their relationship to their children is the most important aspect of their lives; this is especially true of mothers with pre-school children. Fully 80% of single moms say their parenting role takes precedence over all others.

Married women with children under 18 divide evenly on the importance of their marital relationship and their mother-child relationship; 41% say marriage is most important, 38% say relations with their children are most important. Mothers with adult children are much more likely to put their marriages first, although the relationship with their children remains quite important. Seven out of ten (72%) married women who are childless put marriage first. Unmarried childless women most often choose their relationship with their own mother as most important to their happiness (31%), followed by relationships with friends (24%), careers (11%) and hobbies (10%).

More than nine out of ten (93%) mothers with kids under 18 say their children are a source of happiness all or most of the time. But six in ten (61%) of these same mothers also say the mother-child relationship is frustrating at least some of the time. Mothers with teenage children are more likely to be frustrated in this respect than those with younger or older children (68%, vs. 59% and 41%, respectively).

Nine out of ten women (90%) say their marriage makes them happy all or most of the time. Almost half (48%) find it frustrating at least some of the time.

The most frustration and least happiness come from work. Two in ten women (21%) say their jobs are frustrating all or most of the time, but another 50% say work is that way at least some of the time. Only 60% of employed women find their work a source of happiness all or most of the time, making jobs the least frequent source of happiness among those aspects of life measured in the poll. Older women and those with higher incomes derive more happiness from their jobs and report lower levels of frustration.

Rating Motherhood

While mothers clearly value their relationships with their children and derive a great deal of satisfaction from mothering, they do not give themselves overwhelming praise for the job they are doing as mothers. One third (35%) of mothers with children under 18 are very satisfied with their own performance, 62% are mostly satisfied. Very few (2%) are dissatisfied. Mothers under 40 are, on balance, more pleased with their performance.

Although most women agree that couples in which the mother does not work outside the home do a better job of raising kids, stay-at-home moms do not rate their parental performance significantly higher than working moms. In fact, college- educated moms who stay at home with their children are among the least satisfied with the job they are doing as mothers — only 28% are very satisfied. The same cannot be said of stay-at-home moms who never attended college, nearly half (46%) of them — far above the average — are very satisfied. Among working mothers, education does not seem to be a factor in self-evaluation.

Working moms who are most satisfied at work are also most pleased with the job they are doing as mothers. More than half (53%) of those who are very satisfied with their job are also very satisfied with the job they are doing at home. This compares with only 25% of those who are less satisfied at work. Similarly those working mothers who place a great deal of importance on their careers are more likely to say they are very satisfied than those who rate their careers as less important (44% vs. 27%).

Flexibility Wanted

Working mothers are, for the most part, more satisfied than not with their jobs. One third (31%) say they are very satisfied with their current job, 58% say they are mostly satisfied, and the remaining 11% are dissatisfied. College graduates and those with higher incomes are among the most satisfied with their work life.

When mothers of children under 18 are asked if, ideally, they would prefer to work full time, part time, or not at all, the plurality (44%) say they would prefer to work part time. While in reality fully half (51%) of these mothers work full time, only three in ten (30%) say they prefer this option. Full time work is more often the choice of low income working mothers, single moms and minorities.

The survey found evidence that the flexibility that comes with part time jobs may be as attractive to mothers with young children as reduced work hours. Almost three quarters (73%) said a flexible schedule would be very important in considering a job. Flexibility is of particular importance to mothers with children under 12 (77% very important vs. 61% for mothers whose youngest child is between 12 and 17). Part time hours or job sharing opportunities are very important for 43% of these mothers.

The ability to work from home or telecommute is equally desirable. The more children a women has, the more interested she is likely to be in this option. Fully half (49%) of mothers with three or more children say the ability to work from home would be very important in choosing a new job; this compares with 45% of those with two children and 36% of those with only one. Four in ten (41%) mothers with children under 18 would like on- site child care in their workplace. Predictably, this figure is much higher among those with pre-school age children.

Mom’s Mom

Women are close to their own mothers. More than eight in ten (82%) women with mothers still living speak to their mothers at least once a week, including nearly half (45%) who do so almost every day. Six in ten (61%) mothers with children under 18 say they rely on their mothers for advice at least sometimes. But four in ten (39%) hardly ever or never do. Mothers under 30 and those with pre-school age children solicit their mothers’ child-rearing advice more frequently than older moms and those with older children

Many of today’s mothers are not able to recreate the family life they had growing up. Overwhelming majorities of women report that when they were growing up their family usually ate dinner together (91%), their mother was usually there when they got home from school (78%) and was able to attend special events they were involved in (76%), and their family usually attended religious services together (72%).

Today, mothers report doing three of these four activities at significantly lower rates. Fewer say their families eat dinner together (80%) and go to church together (59%). Only six in ten (61%) mothers with at least one school age child say they are home in time to meet the school bus. Mothers do clearly make an effort to attend events their children are involved in, such as school plays and sporting events. In fact, working mothers may place more emphasis on these types of events than their own mothers did, in an effort to compensate for the many hours they are away from their children.

Working moms and stay-at-home moms differ most drastically in their ability to be home when their children get home from school. Only 38% of full time working moms with school age kids are home by 3 o’clock, compared to 95% of moms who stay home. Most mothers, regardless of whether or not they work, report that their families regularly eat dinner together. Mothers of teenagers are less likely to be able to get the whole family together for dinner on a regular basis than mothers with kids under 12.

Interracial Adoption Questioned

Women are skeptical about the ability of white couples to successfully raise adopted children of other races. Three in ten (29%) think most white couples can do a good job raising a black child, 49% say some can. A similar proportion think white couples can do a good job with an Hispanic child (29% say most, 55% some). Women are more positive about the prospects of whites raising Asian children: 37% say most can do a good job, another 48% say some can.

White women are more likely to think white couples can do a good job raising minority kids than non-white women are. Black women are particularly skeptical of the ability of white couples to successfully parent minority children, be they black, Hispanic or Asian.

The Sandwich Generation

A quarter (26%) of women are currently helping to care for a parent or other older relative, and another quarter (26%) expect to be in this situation within the next ten years. Non- white women more often than white women report caring for an elderly relative (60% vs. 51%). Women between the ages of 30 and 50 are most likely to be in this situation.

Over half (54%) of the women who are currently in this sort of care-taking role say it causes them at least some stress; among them one in five say they are under a lot of stress. Even the prospect of elder care is stressful for some women. Four in ten (39%) of those who foresee this in their future say it causes them some stress.

The Boomerang Generation

Not only do many women today find themselves caring for their elderly parents and relatives, three in ten mothers of adult children (28%) report at least one of those children is currently living in their household all or part of the year. Four in ten of these grown children are living at home while they finish their schooling, another 38% cannot afford to live on their own. According to their mothers, about one in ten (13%) of these adult kids are still at home simply because they like living with their parents.

  1. "Career-oriented" women are those who rated their career as a 9 or 10 in terms of importance to their personal happiness and fulfillment on a scale of 0 to 10 (see Q.2d of the questionnaire).