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Support for working moms is stronger than ever — except when it comes to parental leave and other concrete policies

Far more than its peer countries, the US forces mothers to choose between work and time with kids.

mother with baby Getty Images

Ever since its establishment in the early 20th century — unofficially in 1908, officially in 1914 — Mother’s Day has been when Americans celebrate the importance of the biological imperative of reproduction.

It may seem crass to put it that way. But at its core, the holiday is about thanking our mothers for bringing us into the world, fulfilling the socially vital task of continuing the species, and acknowledging the sacrifices they made to do so.

These sacrifices can take many forms, and American political leaders are neglecting their duty to the nation’s mothers by failing to ameliorate them. These sacrifices fall on mothers of every type, from stay-at-home moms to those who balance motherhood and careers.

Stay-at-home moms report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress than working moms. However, the gap shrinks as family household income rises, suggesting the stress here is mostly caused by finances.

One way to boost household incomes for poor moms is to give them the flexibility to work if they want to, and about half say they do want to enter the workforce. (More on how to accomplish that in a minute.)

Although pundits often portray a quasi-culture war between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers, both paths remain very popular. Once large majorities of Americans opposed the idea of married, childless women working outside the home; now there is virtually universal support for women working.

As of 2016, according to the General Social Survey, fewer than a third of Americans thought that a mom working resulted in any developmental challenge for kids or hurt the mother-child relationship.

At the same time, stay-at-home moms are envied at least as often as they are condescended to. In fact, majorities of moms say they would prefer to be full-time homemakers if they had that option, and this holds up regardless of their actual employment status. Gallup polls show that 57 percent of stay-at-home moms prefer the role of stay-at-home-mom to that of working mom, and, more strikingly, a similar 54 percent of working moms would prefer to be stay-at-home moms.

Large shares of women without children also state this preference, while men are across the board less likely to prefer full-time work as parents. These preferences have all been roughly stable for the last 30 years.

This is all great news for moms! Society is becoming more and more accepting of working moms and of allowing a diversity of family structures.

But there’s a catch. For all that American society talks a good talk about women in the workplace, we aren’t walking the walk.

American women wish they could have more children

One measure of the trade-offs our society imposes on women is that they are having fewer children than they’d like to. Empirical studies show that American women, regardless of age, religion, or family status, tend to desire around two to three children. Data from a 2013 Gallup poll suggests that the “ideal” number of children has been stable for 30 or 40 years at around 2.4 to 2.6 kids. But in reality, most American women today can only expect to have 1.9 to 2.1 children.

The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 cohort suggests that older millennial women — those born from 1979 to 1985 — expected, when they were in their late teens and early 20s, to have about 2.5 children on average. But they are unlikely to reach that goal. In practice, millennial women today should reasonably expect to have about 1.6 to 1.9 children on average, a substantial shortfall relative to their desires.

Stay-at-home moms are also, as I suggested, under significant financial strain. While about half of non-employed moms suggest they want to stay home voluntarily, nearly half also say the cost of child care is a reason for staying out of the workforce.

Gallup/GSS/Lyman Stone

Conveniently, there’s a very simple solution to this mess: changing how much time we expect parents to spend at their workplaces. In the developed world — but not the US, naturally — a common way to target parents for a publicly supported reduction in working hours is parental leave: After a child’s birth, the government steps in to pay parents a share of their salary for several months while they stay home, or compels employers to do so.

There are other, more creative options too, including job-sharing arrangements allowing stable workforce participation with lower hourly commitments, expanded teleworking arrangements, or flexible working hours.

But these policies are harder to legislate, which makes focusing on parental leave a smart political goal. Many academic studies have shown that government-assisted parental leave, especially paid leave, helps women who want to work stay in the workforce, which in turn boosts household incomes and reduces child poverty, and thus reduces the welfare bill to the state.

While I have argued elsewhere that parental leave policies probably aren’t very effective in actually getting women to have kids, they are indisputably effective in boosting female attachment to the workforce, with all the economic benefits that entails, such as reducing the poverty of the household.

General Social Survey/Lyman Stone

There’s a chasm between our rhetorical support for mothers and our policies

The United States’ family leave policies are dismal in comparison to the rest of the world: The average OECD country provides the equivalent of 30 weeks of paid maternity leave. Estonia, with one of the leanest tax systems in the world and ranked by the Heritage Foundation as the seventh freest economy on earth, gives the equivalent of 85 weeks.

It’s no surprise that our female labor force participation rates have started declining as participation rises in other countries. (Again, Estonia is crushing it!). A stark choice between working and having children is not “natural” or inevitable. But US policies force that choice on women.

Of course, family leave policies can have side effects. Mom-specific programs may result in employers discriminating against women, for example, regardless of laws barring this. Even progressive European countries that create big mom-specific leave programs find that women mysteriously just don’t get hired as much. But this problem can be addressed by extending leave programs to fathers and encouraging them to take it. Sweden goes a step further, requiring fathers to take time off.

It’s rare to find a policy that strengthens the institution of the nuclear family, reinforces the rights of parents to be with their children (and exercise direct responsibility for their upbringing), boosts labor force participation, and alleviates poverty. Family leave is that policy.

So let’s get specific: We should extend guaranteed family leave — ideally paid leave but at least a guarantee of reemployment — to six months or a year. That would still place the US in the middle of the pack internationally.

Yet that one change would significantly advance conservative social priorities regarding family values, as well as progressive economic priorities such as alleviating poverty and empowering women economically. More to the point, guaranteed leave enables parents to be home with their children more, something everybody, especially social conservatives who are skeptical of government-run child care programs, should appreciate.

Even for my fellow free market conservatives concerned with overregulating work, generous family leave should be no concern. Every single country with greater overall market freedom than the United States, according to a measure used by the Heritage Foundation, has paid maternity leave. The one country in the world with a more flexible labor market than the US, Singapore, also has paid maternity leave: 16 weeks of it! By helping keep moms in the labor force, well-structured family leave policies may if anything help reduce labor force rigidities.

So this Mother’s Day, it may be that the best gift we can give mom is state- or federally guaranteed paid leave. Actually, scratch that: Few moms want a political speech on Mother’s Day; go with cards, a phone call, and flowers. But don’t forget the sacrifices moms are making the next time you’re at the ballot box.

Lyman Stone, a Vox columnist, is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA. Find him on Twitter @lymanstoneky.


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