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Joanne Stern, Ph.D.
Joanne Stern Ph.D.

Working Mothers' Lives: Q & A with Historian Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz give her expertise on parenting and working women.

Ask almost any question you can think of about family life- from two centuries ago to the present-and Stephanie Coontz will be able to answer thoughtfully and accurately. She's a fountain of information and expertise about American families, including marriage, feminism, parenting and working women.

In a recent interview about her book, "The Way We Never Were," I asked Stephanie some questions about the issues of working women, and I'm delighted to share them with you.

Joanne: You report that, in every decade since 1880, there has been an increase in women's paid work. No group of women who chose to work in any of those decades ever permanently returned to the home. What have you found to be the motivations, inspirations and benefits for women that compensate for the extra stress and time crunch of combining work and family?

Stephanie: Many things contribute to the growing percentage of their lives that women spend in the workforce. Part of it is decreased fertility, so that less of one's life is wrapped up with very young children. Part of it is the increasing cost of raising children, especially the cost of sending them to college. Since 1980, the overall consumer price index has gone up by 179 percent -- but the cost of college tuition and fees has risen by 827 percent. In many families, even those where women only work part-time, women's work makes the margin of difference between being able to afford a house or save for college and not.

But there are individual psychological and emotional benefits to working, despite the extra stress. Individuals who play more than one role may be more rushed, but they also have better immune functioning and social support systems than those who play only one role -- e.g. mother OR employee. On average, women who work outside the home have lower lifetime rates of depression and a higher sense of social competence than those who don't. Women who earn income tend to have a larger say in family decisions, and they get more help with housework and childcare from their husbands than women who are home fulltime. So children get more involved fathers.

Joanne: You have indicated that in the early 1900s it was already recognized that women had skills for jobs outside the home because of their training at home. What were these skills that women learned while raising their kids and managing their households?

Stephanie: Originally, employers wanted female workers because they thought they would work for lower pay and make fewer demands on their employers, plus they figured it would be easier to lay them off when demand fell because they supposedly didn't have families to support. Then in the 1950s, during the Cold War and the arms race, government and employers began to realize they needed to use the talents of women -- just as their rival Russia was doing. But they still thought they could pay them less and send them packing whenever they wanted. Since the 1970s, the gains of the women's movement and the increased education and experience of women workers have made it harder to treat women as second-class, expendable workers. Many companies are now recognizing that women have more practice in multi-tasking and negotiating than men, and that can be a benefit.

Joanne: In your book you say that the way work is organized eats away at family time. Can you suggest ways organizations can change to better accommodate and honor families or ways working moms can reorganize their work schedules to be better able to integrate their work lives with their home lives?

Stephanie: Most workplaces are very rigid. One poll found that it was easier for employees to call in sick than to arrange to get 2 hours off to attend a parent-teach conference. And American workers also work longer hours than the rest of the industrial world. I think it's really important, though, that we don't turn this into a woman's issue. Working fathers also need time with kids, and in fact, men are now MORE likely to report work-family conflict than women are. And it's not just parents who are stressed: 25 percent of us are also doing some kind of care for older relatives. Americans are more stressed by work-family issues than any of our European counterparts, and that's because we lack the family-friendly work policies that Europeans take for grants: Those include limits on overtime, guaranteed paid vacation and sick days, the right to breast-feeding breaks on the job; subsidized parental leaves (longer than any available here); laws preventing employers from paying you less per hour if you drop to part-time; and access to high-quality, affordable child care.

Joanne: Working mothers lament that they are starved for time and feel the stress of balancing work and family life. Most believe they are not giving enough time to their children. Are children of working moms disadvantaged by not having their moms around so much? If so, how can these women make it up to their kids?

Stephanie: One reason we historians like the show Mad Men is that it is very accurate in portraying the family dynamics of the time. Betty Draper is not a bad mom -- she is pretty typical of the past. On average, today's moms spend more time interacting with their kids than back in 1965, the height of the female homemaker family. Working moms spend less time than stay-at-home moms, but they still spend MORE time than stay-at-home moms did in 1965. And dads are MUCH more involved than in the past.

Joanne: I have found that it is very common for women to feel guilty if they do not spend all their free time with their kids and also keep a perfect house. Where did this guilt come from and how can women overcome it?

Stephanie: We still have all these old tapes about what it means to be a "good" housewife. And of course now we have the Martha Stewart model for perfection. But Martha doesn't have kids at home OR a husband, so we just have to get realistic about our priorities. Would you rather have a perfect house or would you rather enjoy your job AND your family and let the housework slide? Ellen Galinsky did a study of what the kids of working parents want and when she asked them, they did NOT say they wanted more time with mom. They wanted mom to feel less guilty and stressed during the time that they WERE together.

Hopefully the information Stephanie has to offer educates us about our own situations and inspires us to be more effective in our roles as working moms. Stephanie teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA and is the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families -- which happens to be a great source on current family research: Her books include: "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" and the award-winning "Marriage, A History: How Love conquered Marriage." In January, 2011, Basic Books will publish her study of the wives and daughters of "The Greatest Generation," the women who rushed into marriage, motherhood, and fulltime housewifery in the 1950s and then began to feel that they were sidelined from the world and not even respected by their own families. It's called "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

For information on parenting in today's world, check out my book, "Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life."

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About the Author
Joanne Stern, Ph.D.

Joanne Stern, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in family and couples counseling, as well as the author of Parenting Is a Contact Sport.

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