Jean M Twenge Ph.D.

Our Changing Culture

Why Working Mothers Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

Attitudes toward gender equality are more positive than ever.

Posted Jul 07, 2015

“How do you balance work and family?”

“Who’s watching your kids when you’re on your business trip?”

As many have pointed out, few fathers are ever asked these questions, but many mothers who work outside the home hear them on a regular basis. Many people still associate men with careers and women with home.

So have we made any progress at all? Here’s the good news: We have, and a lot. In a recent article just published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, my co-authors and I looked at two nationally representative surveys done since the 1970s that quizzed Americans about their views of gender roles. In 1977, 68% of American adults took a negative view of working mothers, agreeing that ‘‘A preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works.’’ But only 42% agreed in 1998, which sank further to 35% in 2012. Even fewer of today’s young generation agrees: 22% of high school seniors in the 2010s thought children suffer when they have a working mother, down from 59% in the 1970s.

Another item takes a positive view of working mothers: ‘‘A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work.’’ Only 49% agree in 1977, which increased to 68% in 1998 and to 72% by 2012. So acceptance of working mothers went from losing the election to winning it.

There have been some bumps along the way: Attitudes became slightly more traditional during the 1990s, those times of race and gender upheaval. Then, around 2000, they began a steady climb toward more and more acceptance. High school students’ attitudes became much more accepting of working mothers between the 1970s and the 1990s and then only inched upward, but they didn’t have much further up to go.

Why has this happened? Of course, many more mothers do work now than in the 1970s. Attitudes and behavior go hand in hand. High school students whose mothers worked were even more supportive of working mothers than those who had a stay-at-home mom – and both had more accepting attitudes over the decades.

Another key reason: We are increasingly uncomfortable with any social rule that tells people what they can and can’t do based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. The ethos of the moment is equality, rooted in the growing individualism of American culture. As I note in Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, our current brand of individualism can have its downsides – excessive self-focus, narcissism, lower empathy, lack of civic involvement. But individualism also means setting aside automatic assumptions based on group membership. The results flow like a cascade: More equality for women, better opportunities regardless of race or background, equal rights for gays and lesbians. It’s far from a perfectly equal world, but it’s worlds away from the America of just 50 years ago. Though I’m more often asked about the negative consequences of growing individualism, it’s just as important to mention the upsides – and thus the strengths of the Millennial generation. They are the first to take equality for granted, and it serves them well. The longest chapter in Generation Me is titled “The Equality Revolution.”

Source: Alamy

There’s a third possibility: Perhaps public attitudes have come to reflect the psychology research on the effects of non-family daycare for kids. Longitudinal studies have consistently found few differences between children based on their mothers’ employment – some effects of daycare are positive, and some  are negative, but all are fairly small, much smaller than the effects of parenting. (Obviously, this field of research is complex; see this Slate article for a nice summary).

What about those stories you might have read about GenX’ers or Millennials turning back the clock on women’s issues? Some of these are just anecdotal stories. Others are one-time polls that can’t separate age from generation. One found that Millennials (born in the 1980s and 1990s and in their 20s to early 30s) were more likely than GenX’ers and Boomers to say that one parent should stay at home. However, many of these Millennials don't have children yet, and thus have not yet realized how difficult it is to support a family on one income. As I’ve documented elsewhere, Millennials are highly optimistic, sometimes unrealistically so. Given these issues, the over-time data – which can compare the generations at the same age – is a more reliable source, and it shows strikingly more acceptance for both parents working. For example, 38% more high school students in the early 2010s (vs. the late 1970s) said that both parents working was a desirable family situation.

It seems clear: The world has changed for women. Women staying in the workforce after they have children is arguably the largest cultural and generational change of them all, the one that has the most effect on the daily lives of Americans – men and women, adults and children. It cuts across race, class, and regional lines.

Given that, why don’t we have a solution for the problem so many families with two working parents face: How to pay for daycare for their kids? Most industrialized countries have solutions in place, with subsidized daycare or preschool and mandatory paid parental leave. Not the U.S. Recently, bipartisan consensus has formed around government-sponsored preschool – basically, extending state funding of kindergarten down another year or two. Some believe this goes to far in spending tax dollars on daycare; others think it doesn’t even come close to solving the problem of affordable daycare. What do you think -- should the U.S. do a better job of helping families where both parents work, or do they need to work things out for themselves?

Working vs. staying at home is a tough, emotional, personal issue. But if you’re a working mom, you can let go of at least some of your guilt – a solid majority of Americans now believes you’re not harming your kids. It’s a small step, but it’s a step.

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