Actress Emma Thompson recently decided to take a year off from her work to spend time with her children, and in describing the decision she chided all working moms, saying, “You can’t be a great mum and keep working all the time.”
Explaining her view that “Sometimes in life you’ll have some things, at other times you will have other things” and “you don’t need it all at once,” she added, “Motherhood if a full-time job.”
She went on to say, “The only way I could have continued working would have been by delegating the running of the home to other people,” and she didn’t want to do that because “I find motherhood profoundly enjoyable.” Yet she wouldn’t have necessarily had to look outside her own home for help. Her husband, actor Greg Wise, appears to be just as capable. “[H]e can cook, wash up, clean, entertain children, understand maths homework, put up shelves, take them down and put them up elsewhere and repair the little holes left behind, garden with a purpose, drive sensibly but very fast on motorways and let me get on with my life,” she said in the same interview. Indeed, given that she’s been in far more movies than her husband and is ranked in IMDB’s top 5,000 (Wise doesn’t rank), it’s unclear why she had to stop working while he didn’t.
Thompson also said, “I highly recommend others do the same if they can afford it.” If neither parent wanted to stop working, the family could still have afforded to care for their children: her wealth is estimated at about £30 million.
Most, however, don’t have the luxury to take a year off of work. A record share of families rely on women’s income, making it difficult for them to leave their jobs even if they wanted to.
And among those mothers who do stay at home, a growing share don’t look like Thompson. Instead, many today are single, cohabiting, or married to a husband who doesn’t work; a third live in poverty; half don’t have a college degree; and they are less likely to be white and more likely to be immigrants. The financial barriers these women face means the share who are home because they can’t find a job is up while those who are home to care for their children is down.
Thompson is extremely lucky to have equal choices to either stay home with her kids for a year or to keep working and hire help. For most, just getting childcare is a nearly impossible expense. The cost of weekly care for American families with working mothers grew by more than 70 percent between 1985 and 2011, adjusted for inflation. Today it costs more than a quarter of median income and more than what most families spend on rent or food — in some states, it tops the cost of a public college education.
Meanwhile, the number of stay-at-home fathers has been growing, with their share doubling, yet families with a dad who stays home still make up less than 1 percent of the total. The fact that Thompson doesn’t indicate whether her husband ever pondered a pause in his work is indicative of where things stand for most men: they just aren’t asked or expected to interrupt their careers for children. More than a quarter of mothers have had to quit their job at some point for family reasons, compared to just 10 percent of men. Even among well off executives, just 10 percent of women have a spouse who stays home full time, compared to 60 percent of men. The men also feel less guilt about missing time with their children to be at work.