Working Mothers: The Effects on Society and Family

Thankfully, the ‘Ward Cleaver’ image of the family is on its way out yet, according to sociologists, the sexual inequality associated with assigning men the role of the economic provider and women as the child rearer and homemaker, is still very much in existence. These social stereotypes remain in spite of the fact that, within the last few decades, there has been a sharp increase in the number of mothers deciding to venture outside the home and into paid employment. Statistics show that the level of mothers in paid employment has risen from one in eight in the 1950’s to a present day estimate of over fifty percent and, according to the Department of Labor, in 2001 women were found to compose forty-eight percent of the entire labor force furthermore it is forecasted that in 2008 that percentage will equal or exceed 50 percent. The majority of mothers are in employment out of necessity, either because of single parenthood, divorce, widowhood or other factors, which place them in the role of sole, or primary, provider for the family. However, modern society still tends to define men as the ‘breadwinner’ whose career is of greater importance than that of women, who still appear to be generally labeled as the homemaker. This is most apparent in the household division of labor, with many working mothers commonly faced with an unequal workload of household tasks in addition to their paid employment, even in cases where the husband is unemployed or working in part-time employment.

A study by Wheelock examined the household division of labor in families where the woman was in paid employment and the man was unemployed. This was found to be a fairly unusual situation because in many cases where the husband becomes unemployed it appears that the wife is likely to do the same, in all likelihood as a result of the disincentive effect of the social security system. However, in the thirty families that were studied it was found that the primary responsibility for household tasks remained with the woman, although there was limited involvement by the partner. This inequality is further reinforced by the studies of Bielby and Bielby, which suggests that even in households where both partners are in paid employment, it is men who retain the majority of power in household decisions. Bielby and Bielby illustrate these findings by raising the point that, if the man is offered a promotion that involves the family having to relocate then, in most cases, the wife will comply, regardless of the effects on her own career. It was noted that as more women enter the work force and for a distinctive career choice this practice will no longer be the case. Socialization and social values play a large part in the maintenance of this inequality, as men, who do engage in household tasks, or childcare, are still commonly viewed as ‘helping out’ or ‘giving his wife a hand’, rather than fulfilling an expected social role.

A major concern, which is often raised in modern society, in response to the increasing number of working mothers, is the possible effects on the children of a loss of supervision, maternal love and social stimulation. Research, however, suggests that these fears have no basis in fact, and that there is very little difference in the intellectual and emotional development between the children of working mothers and those whose mothers stay at home. Many sociologists, and psychologist, have turned the argument around, suggesting that it is the fathers’ situation that is the crucial issue. It is claimed that a mother who is works and finds personal satisfaction in her employment is more likely to perform better than those who are either not working but would like to, or those who are employed but are either unsatisfied with their job or are beset by guilt or pressure. Studies such as those of McEwan suggest that it is the children of mothers who fall into the latter category who are more likely to experience a degree of maladjustment or behavioral problems. There are, of course, a great many peripheral factors that must also be taken into account when studying this area, such as the specific structure of the family and the household’s socioeconomic circumstances. Additionally, for a mother to be able to adequately perform in her roles as both mother and employee, she has to rely on factors such as the role played by her partner, if present, the attitude and support of other family members and friends, and the cost and availability of adequate childcare. The easing of this situation, and the inherent sexual inequality, will certainly not be possible while society continues to accept that many fathers play a less than equal role in the areas of childcare and household tasks.

An increasingly important, and worrying, issue faced by many working mothers is that of childcare, which according to a 1999 Census Bureau Study costs American families an average of $4,000 to $10,000 per child each year depending on their age. As with most issues, the cost of childcare is not a burden that is equally shared throughout society, with those most in need being required to forego a greater share of their earnings than those who are better off. It has been estimated that while mothers from middle-income households will spend an average of six percent of their income on childcare, for those who live in poverty this figure rises to twenty-five percent! This may account for the increase in ‘latchkey’ children, many of whom are from lower income families and are becoming linked with other issues, such as the increase of violence and crime by youngsters within society. Of far more immediate concern is the figure provided by a 1990 national survey by the US Department of Education, which asserts that forty-five percent of child 5 to 12 years old of working mothers are left at home alone, with absolutely no adult supervision.

Mothers who can afford, and do use, childcare facilities face a different set of problems, especially with the increasing levels of concern over the quality and safety of the growing number of daycare centers. Many of these centers, in their quest for profit, offer low quality facilities and hygiene levels, resulting in an unacceptably high rate of accidents and the spread of minor diseases, such as colds and diarrhea. In addition, there is increasing concern regarding the procedures used in the selection, training and supervision of childcare staff, especially in light of the recent, much publicized incidents of physical and sexual abuse against children, perpetrated by individuals working within the childcare industry. As events have proved, these problems are not limited to organized daycare centers and facilities, but also to other areas of childcare, such as nannies who are privately employed to care for children within the supposed safety of their own homes!

There are, however, many well-organized and professional childcare facilities that provide children with educational and intellectual stimulation as well as emotional support. Whether there is any effect, either positive or negative, on the development of children of working mothers who are cared for in this way is almost impossible to accurately determine, with so many causative factors to take into account. The effects of day care may depend, not only on the quality of the facility, but also on the amount of time the child spends there, and also on the quality of the parent-child relationship during the time that the family is together.

There are other difficulties which have surfaced with the increased level of working mothers, such as the conflict which surrounds the lack of time which couple can spend together, especially if one partner works while the other provides the childcare and vice versa. Also, with the earnings of women gradually approaching parity with those of men, there can often arise the problems and conflicts associated with damage to the male partner’s self-esteem in families where he earns a lower income than that of his wife. In general though, there is a degree of hope for the future, and several recent studies confirm that although the dynamics of families and family decision-making are going through a process of dramatic change, many men and women are gradually learning to adapt to these new patterns and roles. Wheelock suggests positive changes in the workplace will be the result of additional women in the work force. He noted an increase in employer flexibility and work environments; many employers will look into alternative work environments including home and satellite offices. Many companies will establish or change benefits and policies regarding the additional needs to support women in the work force. Michele Bolton notes that as higher educated women enter the workplace more women will conquer the corporate ladder and shatter the “glass ceiling”. This accomplishment will allow more women to gain the appropriate recognition and higher paying salaries and positions. It was best stated by McEwan “Anything can happen when womanhood [ceases] to be a protected occupation…”

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