Work vs. Homework vs. Home

When mothers of young children decide to stay in the work forceor stay at home, their beliefs about the appropriate roles formothers can be as important as economic factors in the decision,says Angela Hattery, assistant professor of sociology at WakeForest University. Her new book, “Women, Work and Family:Balancing and Weaving,” examines the ways mothers with youngchildren resolve the job-family conflict. Sage Publicationspublished the book in January 2001.

Hattery interviewed 30 married women, including 10 mothers whostayed at home full-time, 10 mothers who were employed full-timeand 10 mothers who were employed part-time. She selected womenfrom various economic groups with various numbers of children, buteach of the women had an 18-month-old child at the time of theinterviews.  

“The interviewssuggest that economic need is only one of a host of factors whichdetermine the labor force participation of mothers with youngchildren,” said Hattery.

The data illustrates that mothers resolve the job-familyconflict in four different ways based their beliefs aboutmotherhood or their “motherhood ideology,” Hattery said.She identified four types of mothers: conformists,non-conformists, pragmatists and innovators.

“I hope people can find themselves in these pages and feelvalidated,” Hattery said. “A lot of women feel that theyare the only one doing it this way. So this is a way of validatingmultiple options for balancing work and family.”

Conformists believe that the only way to be a good mother is tostay at home. This model of intensive mothering developed in thelate 1940s in post-World War II America, Hattery said. Althoughmoms were often home with their children before then, they werenot able to devote themselves primarily to childrearing.

“The work of running a household without the help ofmodern appliances and convenience foods, prevented women fromfocusing completely on their children,” Hattery said. But, bythe late 1950s, women began “not staying at home beinghousewives, but being mothers.”

The conformists are likely to stay at home even when thisrequires tremendous financial sacrifice.

The non-conformists reject the intensive motherhood ideology,believing that they can work and still be good mothers. They feela responsibility to provide economically for the family, feelentitled to pursue their own career interests and believeprofessional childcare benefits their children.

The pragmatists, although they tend to subscribe to thestay-at-home mother model popularized in the 1950s, make theirdecisions about employment based on practical considerations. Withinput from their husbands, they conduct a cost-benefit analysisweighing the pros and cons of working. Some decide to work, whileothers decide to stay at home. The pragmatists tend to idealizefulfilling, well-paying part-time employment, Hattery said. But,many are frustrated about not being able to attain that goal.

The innovators accept the stay-at-home mother ideal, too, butreject the standard methods of achieving a balance between workand family. “Innovators create new ways of meeting thedemands of both their roles as caretakers and economic providersfor their families,” Hattery said.

Strategies they use include working shifts that do not overlapwith their husbands’ or working from home. Some of the innovatorsin the study who worked considered themselves stay-at-home momsbecause they did not use outside childcare. They balance scheduleswith fathers and found ways to work without compromising what theysaw as their duties as mothers.

The conformists, the non-conformists and the innovators werehappy with their decisions to either stay at home or to workdespite the financial stress or time pressures they faced. Thepragmatists, whether they chose to work or not, were the mostdissatisfied with their situations. Pragmatists staying at homefull-time felt guilty about not contributing financially to theirfamilies and about not pursuing the careers they had worked sohard to attain. Those pragmatists who were employed full-time feltguilty about not spending more time with their children.

“Satisfaction with your work situation has more to do withwhat you think you should be doing than what you actually aredoing,” the Wake Forest professor discovered.

Options for child care played a significant role in employmentdecision-making particularly for the pragmatists, Hattery said.She devotes a book chapter to the topic and explores the variousways child care strategies are selected and created in order formothers with young children to weave work and family together asseamlessly as possible.

In her interview with mothers, Hattery also found that employedmothers and stay-at-home mothers were critical of each other’schoices. She hopes the book will help bridge the divide betweenthese women.

“I would love it if women who go to work would understandbetter those who stay at home, and that women who stay at homewould better understand that choice.”

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