Working mothers

Working Mothers 2226
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Working mothers, as a label, refers to women who are mothers and who work outside the home for income in addition to the work they perform at home in raising their children.

Demographics of working mothers

As of the early 2000s, more mothers in the United States are working than ever before. In the mid-1990s, 58 percent of mothers with children under the age of six, and nearly 75 percent of those with children between the ages of six and 18 were part of the paid labor force. The number of single mothers with full-time year-round jobs increased from 39 percent in 1996 to 49 percent in 2002. A growing percentage of married women living with their husbands work as well: 40 percent worked full time in 1992, compared with 16 percent in 1970. The rapid influx of women into the labor force that began in the 1970s was marked by the confidence of many women in their ability to successfully pursue a career while meeting the needs of their children. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the dominant ideal of the working mother was the "Supermom"; juggling meetings, reports, and presentations with birthday parties, science projects, and soccer games. With growing numbers of women confronting the competing pressures of work and home life, observers predicted that these women's needs would be accommodated by significant changes in how things were managed on both fronts: a domestic revolution in sex roles at home and a major shift toward enlightened attitudes and policies toward women in the workplace. Although there have been some changes, they have not been substantial enough to prevent many working mothers from feeling that the price for "having it all" is too high. In the early twenty-first century, some working mothers express disenchantment with the "Supermom" ideal and look for alternatives to help them create a better balance between work and family .

Social and economic factors affecting working mothers

It is important to recognize that mothers in the U.S. workforce are not a homogeneous group of people; there is no typical working mother. Their attitudes toward their jobs and their decisions about child care are shaped by a range of social and economic factors:

  • Marital status and family structure: Statistics indicate that working mothers who are married to the fathers of their children have more stable families. Working mothers who are single or in nontraditional relationships have a more difficult time maintaining family stability even apart from the demands of their jobs. As of 2003, only 68 percent of children in the United States under the age of 18 are living with both biological parents.
  • Type of work: Working mothers in business or the professions usually earn more than women with less education and often find their work psychologically satisfying. They are also often on call outside the office and may find it difficult to leave the demands of their work behind when they go home.
  • Income level: Working mothers with well-paying jobs have more choices about housing, transportation, and child care arrangements than those with limited incomes.
  • Number, ages, and special needs of children: All other factors being equal, women with fewer, widely spaced, and healthy children find it easier to juggle the demands of a job with those of child care than women with several children born close together or women whose children suffer from chronic illnesses or developmental difficulties.
  • Age: Working mothers over 40 are more likely to develop job-related health problems than younger women. In addition, women in this age group are often coping with the care of aging parents as well as their own offspring.


There are a number of different strategies that working mothers use to balance the demands of workplace and family.

The "Mommy track"

Working mothers in many fields experience conflicts between motherhood and professional advancement. Many report that once they have children their professional aspirations are not taken as seriously by colleagues or superiors. In particular, if they quit working for a time to stay home with their children, the gap in their resumes is regarded with suspicion. One study found that the earnings of women with MBAs who took even nine months off after their children were born were still 17 percent lower 10 years later than those of employees with similar qualifications but no comparable gap in their employment record. Some women feel too threatened by the repercussions of time off the job to even take a maternity leave; others report problems on reentering the workforce after such a leave. Women in highly competitive professions are especially reluctant to lighten their work loads or schedules for fear that such measures will signal a lower level of commitment or ability than that of their peers, and they will be automatically assigned to the infamous "Mommy track." Many women—both with and without children—in traditionally male professions still earn lower salaries and carry greater workloads than those of male colleagues with comparable credentials and work experience because of the perception that they are not the breadwinners in their families.

Household responsibilities

On the home front, married working mothers, even those whose husbands espouse an egalitarian philosophy, still find themselves saddled with most of the housework and child care responsibilities. In effect, they often have the equivalent of two jobs, a phenomenon expressed in the title of Arlie Hochschild's highly regarded study The Second Shift . The book reported that the husbands of working mothers shoulder, on average, only one-third of the couple's household duties. Hochschild also noted that the tasks performed most often by men, such as repairs and home maintenance chores, can often be done at their convenience, as opposed to women's duties, such as cooking, which must be done on a daily basis and at specific times, giving women less control over their schedules. In 1990 a survey of 5,000 couples found that only 50 percent of husbands took out the garbage, 38 percent did laundry, and 14 percent ironed. Working mothers also received less help from their children, with one important exception—working single mothers, whose children helped out at home twice as much as children in other families. In addition, they often worked at tasks traditionally done by the opposite sex: boys cooked, cleaned, and babysat; girls helped with home repairs and yard work. A supplementary benefit of this development is that the daughters of single mothers have a greater than average likelihood of entering traditionally male professions offering higher pay and better opportunities for advancement.

There are signs that this "second shift" pattern may be changing. The U. S. Department of Commerce's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) reported in 1997 that one married father in four provided care for at least one child under the age of 15 while the child's mother was working. The study found that fathers who provided child care were more likely to be employed in lower-income occupations; more likely to work in service occupations (police, firefighting, maintenance, security); more likely to be military veterans; and more likely to live in the Northeast than in other parts of the United States.

Day care arrangements

More than 8 million school-age and 15 million pre-school-age children in the United States are placed in the charge of substitute care givers during the hours their mothers are working. The major options for child care include staggered work hours that allow parents to meet all child care needs themselves; care by relatives or close friends; hiring a babysitter or housekeeper; and child care in a private home or at public facilities, including day care centers, nursery schools or preschools, and company-sponsored programs. In 1990, provisions for children under the age of five were split almost equally between in-home care by parents or other relatives and out-of-home care by nonrelatives. The percentage of child care provided by day care centers had increased from 6 percent in 1965 to 28 percent in 1990, partly because the influx of women into the workforce had narrowed the pool of female relatives and friends available to take care of other people's children. Between 1985 and 2005, employment by day care centers increased over 250 percent, representing a gain of almost 400,000 new jobs. Workplace child care facilities did not grow at the same rate: a 1995 survey found that only 10 percent of the nation's 681 major employers offered on-site care programs to their employees.

There are also a number of options for part-time child care as of the early 2000s:

  • Parent babysitting cooperatives: A group of families share responsibilities for child care. Most cooperatives operate on a point basis rather than charging a monetary fee. Points are assigned to each family according to the number of its children and the number of hours of care they require.
  • Sick child care: These programs send an adult caregiver to the home of a sick child on an as-needed basis. There are also day care programs run exclusively for chronically ill children.
  • Play groups: Play groups are similar to cooperative babysitting in that several parents get together to provide opportunities for supervised play for a group of children. Most play groups meet once or twice a week for two or three hours.
  • Drop-in care: Drop-in care is an option offered by some child care centers on an as-needed basis. Parents must pre-register and pay for this service, usually on an hourly basis. Drop-in care allows parents to bring their child in for three to four hours of supervised play on an occasional basis. Most child care centers that offer a drop-in option set an upper limit of 45–50 hours per child in any given month.

Alternative work arrangements

Given the failure of either home or workplace demands to ease significantly, working mothers routinely sacrifice time for themselves, and many report high levels of stress, anxiety , and fatigue. In addition, many still feel torn between the conflicting demands of family and career and guilt for not being able to spend more time with their children. Increasing numbers of working mothers also feel responsible for helping their own aging parents as they develop health problems and become less able to handle their own affairs. (And parents traditionally place greater demands on grown daughters than on sons.) In addition, working mothers are often expected to assume most of the responsibility in family emergencies, such as the illness of a child, which periodically disrupt their already overloaded schedules.

FLEX-TIME AND PART-TIME WORK Dissatisfied with the pressures and sacrifices of combining mothering with full-time work, many women have sought alternatives that allow them to relax the hectic pace of their lives but still maintain jobs and careers. According to one study, the number of companies offering some type of employment flexibility to their workers rose from 51 percent in 1990 to 73 percent in 1995. Fifty-five percent offered flex-time, while 51 percent offered part-time work. In 2004, Working Mother magazine reported that 97 percent of the companies on their list of the 100 best companies for mothers in the workforce offered compressed workweeks or job sharing opportunities. Mothers who work part-time gain more flexibility and more time with their children, as well as time to devote to their own needs. They are able to be there when their children get home from school, attend school plays and other functions, and take their children to doctor appointments without facing conflicts at work. However, part-time work also has disadvantages, aside from the cut in pay. Many part-timers carry workloads disproportionate to the number of hours they put in, sometimes being required to be available by telephone to clients or colleagues during their hours at home. In most cases they lose health insurance coverage. They may also face the resentment of coworkers who are required to keep a nine-to-five schedule. In addition, part-time work, like time taken off the job, usually places women at a disadvantage in terms of professional advancement. Promotions come later, and the "fast-track" positions are often out of reach altogether.

SHIFT WORK Another employment pattern that works well for some couples is working different job shifts, so that the father can provide child care when the mother is at work and vice versa. Many fathers in service occupations are able to share childcare responsibilities because they can work evening or night shifts. Although shift work has the advantage of allowing both parents to work full-time jobs and increase the family's total income, its disadvantage is that it decreases the time available for all family members to share meals and other activities. One study of 4,400 dual wage-earner Canadian families with children below the age of 11 found that children whose parents worked nonstandard schedules were more likely to develop difficulties than children whose parents did not do shift work. The researchers found that this correlation held whether it was the father, the mother, or both parents who worked nonstandard hours.

JOB SHARING An employment arrangement is job sharing, in which two people jointly fill one full-time position. They may alternate their hours in a variety of ways depending on what arrangement best suits the personal and professional needs of both people. For example, one pair of job sharers may work alternate days, while another arrangement may have each person working two days in a row and part of a third day. Job sharing opens up a wider arena of employment than that normally available to holders of traditional part-time jobs, and unlike most part-time employees, women who job share generally receive benefits prorated in accordance with the number of hours each works. For working mothers another advantage of job sharing is that people who job share often cover for each other when unusual family needs arise. In successful job sharing arrangements, the partners have a cooperative and supportive relationship, staying in close touch to maintain continuity on the job. Job sharing may be an option for a husband and wife in the same field as well as for two unrelated workers; some colleges and universities have allowed faculty couples to share a teaching position.

TELECOMMUTING The computer revolution makes possible yet another alternative work option for mothers seeking extra time and a more flexible schedule: telecommuting or working from home. According to reports in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times , telecommuting was the fastest-growing type of alternative work arrangement in the United States as of 2004. It can replace either all or part of one's hours at the workplace, and a telecommuter can work either part- or full-time. Telecommuters receive and send documents via their company's computer networks and can be available, if necessary, by e-mail, voice mail, and pager. Even when a telecommuting employee is expected to adhere to fixed work hours, the arrangement still provides a significant savings in time spent dressing for work, commuting, and socializing with other employees. Experts caution, however, that a woman who works at home should not expect to simultaneously take care of her children. Telecommuting mothers may want to arrange for child care during their working hours and may be interested in establishing boundaries between their work and their family life. Some employers may change the employment status of telecommuters to that of independent contractors, resulting in a loss of benefits for the workers.

ROLE REVERSAL A less common option is for the mother to become the sole family breadwinner while the father assumes the role of "househusband." Some men choose to become "stay-at-home dads" because their wives earn considerably higher salaries than they do; others simply want to spend more time with their children. One finding reported by the American Heart Association in April 2002, however, was that househusbands have a significantly higher risk of developing heart disease than men employed outside the home. The researchers who wrote the report theorized that the increased risk of heart disease is the result of stress caused by violating social expectations rather than the demands of child care.

SELF-EMPLOYMENT Some working mothers who want a challenging but flexible work schedule are drawn to self-employment. While the number of entrepreneurs in the United States increased 56 percent overall in the 1980s, the number of female entrepreneurs grew 82 percent. Women were expected to start 2.5 million companies in the 1990s and own half of all American businesses by 2000. In the early 1990s home-based businesses started by women were the fastest-growing type of small business. The number of women employed in these ventures tripled between 1985 and 1991. Self-employment accommodated a wide range of skills and employment backgrounds, from cooking and crafts to consulting, writing, and practicing tax law. Self-employed women working at home may put in long hours and those leaving high-powered corporate jobs usually earn less money, at least initially, but they gain flexibility and control over their schedules. Like telecommuters, self-employed women may want to daycare arrangements and find strategies for separating their business and personal lives. Fortunately, start-up costs for home-based businesses are relatively low. For women requiring assistance, low-interest loans can be obtained through the Small Business Administration, which also runs a variety of training and networking programs for female entrepreneurs. A number of states also offer programs that aid women-owned businesses.

Children of working mothers

The NICHD Study of Early Child Care, or SECC, was launched in 1991 with the enrollment of a diverse sample of 1364 children at ten different locations across the United States. Phase I of the SECC study followed these children from birth through three years of age and was completed in 1994. Phase II followed the 1226 children who remained in the study from age three through second grade between 1995 and 2000. Phase III follows the remaining 1100 participating children through 2005.

The SECC researchers reported in April 2001 that over 90 percent of the children enrolled in the study had spent some time in the care of people other than the mother, with 50 percent of the children spending 30 hours or more per week in the care of others. The report contained three major findings:

  • A small minority of children (16%) who spent 30 hours or more per week in child care settings were reported to have higher levels of problem behaviors (such as fighting) than children who spent less time in care.
  • The quality of nonmaternal child care makes a major difference. Children who were placed in high-quality childcare settings had better language skills and social/emotional development than those who were placed in centers with poorly trained adults or a high number of children per adult caregiver. (A good childcare center should have no more than five children per adult caregiver.) The study found that the type of care (relatives versus nonrelatives) was not significant.
    This graph of 2002 data on working mothers shows that well over half of all working mothers work over 40 hours a week. (Graph by GGS Information Services.)
    This graph of 2002 data on working mothers shows that well over half of all working mothers work over 40 hours a week.
    (Graph by GGS Information Services.)
  • The most important single element in the children's development was their families of origin and the quality of their relationship with the mother when she was not at work.

Common problems

Common problems that working mothers confront can be summarized as follows:

  • Logistical problems: These problems have to do with coordinating the details of the mother's working day, including use of the family car, arranging one's hours at work, dealing with a sick child, taking the child to the doctor for checkups, etc. Nursing mothers who return to work before an infant is weaned often have to make complicated arrangements for expressing and storing breast milk during the working day.
  • Financial issues: These include the cost of child care arrangements, problems with continuity of health insurance coverage, and loss of income related to missed work. One report indicates that working mothers miss an average of 17 days of work per year due to children's healthcare needs.
  • Professional development issues: Working mothers who cut back their employment to part-time work often lose opportunities for promotions as well as such benefits as health insurance. In addition, other employees often resent having to cover for working mothers who come in late, leave early, or miss work on short notice because of their child's needs.
  • Health issues: Working mothers are often more vulnerable to stress-related illnesses than those who remain at home with their children. Some of the stress is related to ongoing social controversy about changing sex roles and family structures; many working mothers are made to feel guilty about their decision to continue working. In addition, working mothers often do not get enough sleep . Sleep deficits are known to make people more susceptible to infectious illnesses as well as automobile or workplace accidents.
  • Interpersonal issues: Many working mothers, particularly those whose jobs give them little control over their work (such as food service, factory assembly-line work, retail sales work, etc.) come home at night feeling emotionally frustrated as well as physically tired. They are often concerned about the effects of job-related stress on other family members. If the family is coping with the care of elderly relatives as well as children, interpersonal stress is intensified. Parents may find themselves withdrawing emotionally from their children as well as quarreling more often with each other.

Parental concerns

Parental concerns about a mother's employment include several long-term as well as short-term issues:

  • Children's future well-being: A major concern is the impact of the mother's work on her children's long-term academic success, mental health, and ability to form relationships. The SECC study appears to confirm earlier findings that the children of working mothers often benefit from her involvement in the outside world in terms of cultivating their own interests. In addition, good child care experiences often help children's social as well as emotional development.
  • Stability of the marital relationship: Some couples worry about the impact of the mother's work on her relationship with her partner. In general, married couples appear to be less affected by this issue than cohabiting or lesbian couples. Many men feel less burdened by economic concerns when their wives are contributing to the family's income and report that having fewer anxieties about money actually improves their relationship with their spouse. On the other hand, some men whose wives earn higher incomes than they do may come to resent the demands of the wife's job.
  • Household safety and security: Household safety is most likely to become an issue when the children of a working mother are too old for day care and must stay in an empty home for several hours after school before the parents return from work. Such children are sometimes called "latchkey children" because they are usually given a key to the house or apartment so that they can let themselves in when they get home. The American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry (AACAP) maintains that parents should limit as much as possible the time children must be at home alone because of the many risks involved. These risks range from physical dangers in the home (matches, knives, gas stoves, and household cleaners and other dangerous chemicals, etc.) to medical emergencies and strangers ringing the doorbell. AACAP recommends that older children should not be allowed access to "adult" channels on cable television or similar sites on the Internet. As a partial solution to parental concerns about latchkey children, some schools, churches, and synagogues offer after-school programs for children who would otherwise spend several hours at home alone.


Cohabitation —Sexual partners living together outside of marriage.

Flex-time —A system that allows employees to set their own work schedules within guidelines or limits set by the employer.

Latchkey child —A child who must spend part of the after-school day at home without supervision while the parents are at work. The name comes from the fact that such children are given a house or apartment key so that they can let themselves in when they get home from school.

Telecommuting —A form of employment in which the employee works at home on a computer linked to the company's central office.

See also Day care ; Family ; Parent-child relationships .



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Rebecca Frey, PhD

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