No, Well-Educated Mothers Aren’t Opting Out Of Jobs To Stay At Home With Kids

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Working mother with child

CREDIT: Shutterstock

So-called “opt-out moms,” or highly educated, high-income mothers who leave their careers to stay at home with their children, make up just 1 percent of the country’s mothers with kids under the age of 18, according to a new Pew analysis.

Mothers with at least a Master’s degree and family income of $75,000 or more with a working husband who leave the workforce also only account for 11 percent of all highly educated mothers and just 4 percent of stay-at-home moms generally.

The “opt-out revolution” came to the media forefront in 2003, when Lisa Belkin wrote an article with that title in the New York Times Magazine. She warned that barriers for women getting higher education and entering professional fields had begun to drop, but that these women ended up choosing to leave their careers for full-time motherhood, saying, “this is a revolution stalled.”

But today, that’s not what the typical stay-at-home mom looks like. While their numbers have been growing, it’s not necessarily because they’d rather be home with their kids. More are now staying out of the workforce because they can’t find a job — 6 percent in 2012, up from 1 percent in 2000. The share with a working husband who stay home to care for their families has dropped from 96 percent in 1970 to 85 percent. The share who are single, cohabitating, or married to an out of work husband has been rising, and 20 percent of stay-at-home moms today are single, versus just 8 percent in 1970.

The demographics of the opt-out mom also differ sharply from stay-at-home mothers overall. Of the former group, nearly 70 percent are white, 80 percent are between the ages of 35 and 69, and their median family income is well over $100,000. Meanwhile, a third of stay-at-home moms generally live in poverty, half have just a high school diploma or less, and only 50 percent are white.

One reason women may be pushed out of the workforce, instead of choosing to leave, is the high cost of childcare. Pew has previously noted that the cost of care for families with working moms climbed more than 70 percent between 1985 and 2011, adjusted for inflation. And the costs have continued to rise, last year reaching as high as $28,000 for two children and eating up more than what most families spend on food or rent. At the same time, spending on childcare assistance for low-income families just hit a decade low. For lower educated stay-at-home mothers, they may not be able to get jobs that pay enough to cover this cost.

It is this problem, combined with a lack of paid maternity leave and fewer protections for people who want flexible schedules, that has slowed American women’s entrance into the labor force, while other developed countries have continued to increase women’s numbers by enacting better family policies.

In her 2003 piece, Belkin linked the fact that few women make it to the top of corporations or into elected office to the opt-out trend. But that trend, if it existed, seems to have dissipated. Instead, the reasons women still make up less than 15 percent of executive positions at the largest companies, a number that hasn’t budged in four years, may not be of their own making. The most highly ambitious women who use all the same tactics to get ahead as their male counterparts will still be half as likely to reach senior executive level. When they do make it, they are relegated to support positions and the few who make it to CEO are more likely to end up fired.

Women at any level face barriers in the workplace. A third of women say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work, and one in five say they’ve been sexually harassed. Fifteen percent have been passed over for a promotion or opportunity at work because they are women. And they still are paid less, making 77 percent of what men make when they work full-time, year-round and earning less in virtually every job.