Stay-at-Home Parenting Is on the Rise Because Mothers Can't Find Work

Low-wage shift work rarely covers the cost of child care.
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Low-wage shift work rarely covers the cost of child care.
Young Housewife, by Alexey Tyranov. (Photo: Public Domain)

Young Housewife, by Alexey Tyranov. (Photo: Public Domain)

“Stay-at-home mother” evokes black-and-white images of well-coiffed women in starched aprons. Rather than a vestige of a bygone era, stay-at-home moms are on the rise, according to the findings of a new Pew Research study. In 2012, 29 percent of women with children under the age of 18 stayed home, a number that has been climbing since 1999 and is now three percent higher than in 2008.

However, while more women are staying home with their children, the face of the stay-at-home mom has changed dramatically since the Leave It to Beaver days of the 1950s. Stay-at-home moms today are less educated and more likely to live in poverty than working moms. Younger mothers and immigrant mothers also make up a good portion of stay-at-home moms.

The story of why mothers are staying home is more complex than you may imagine and has more to do with the poor labor market, the exorbitant price of child care, and the contemporary structure of work. In a recent interview with Wisconsin Public RadioBarbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke about how this report has been picked up by the mainstream media:

What’s surprising to me is the headlines and how it’s portrayed in the news. Although the numbers are going up, when you look at what mothers say, 6% of the mothers in this study say they are home because they can’t find a job. When you take those 6% of mothers out, the results are rather flat. Part of the real story here then is that it’s hard to find a job that allows you to work and covers your child care, particularly if you have less education and your earning potential isn’t very high.

These days stay-at-home moms, who are more likely to be less educated, are not able to make enough money for working to even be worthwhile. Many times, their pay wouldn’t actually cover the cost of child care. Beyond these important financial considerations, lower wage shift work makes it extremely difficult to coordinate child care in the midst of work schedules that change on a weekly basis.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Stay-at-Home Mothers on the Rise Among Low-Income Families.”