Essay first published in Newsday.
It looks like Supermom is here to stay. Women ages 18 to 34, in a new survey, rated “high-paying career” high on their list of life priorities. For the first time, women in this age group outnumbered men in considering it important – 66 percent of women, compared with 59 percent of men. The last time this question was asked of this age group, in 1997, the sexes ranked “career” roughly equal in importance (56 percent of women and 58 percent of men).
At the same time, being a good parent and having a successful marriage continued to rank significantly high on everyone’s list. “They haven’t given any ground on marriage and parenthood,” said researcher Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the study. “In fact, there is even more emphasis [on home life] than 10 to 15 years ago.”
The story line over the past couple of decades has been that, for the most part, women would prefer to stay home with children. Those who could afford it were “opting out” of the workplace for home. The recent stir over Ann Romney’s stay-at-home motherhood reawakened culturally conservative voices claiming that her choice is superior for women, and certainly better for kids.
But Parker believes that young women’s expectations about the need to earn a paycheck are changing their attitudes. They were surveyed as the damage of the 2008 recession – dubbed the “mancession” for how men lost jobs disproportionately – was still playing out. “The reality is hitting women that they cannot rely on a male breadwinner,” Parker says.
On a brighter note, she adds, young women have seen older women reap the fruits of workplace success and “are motivated to take on big roles.” Women have been outpacing men for some time in earning college and graduate degrees. There are now three women on the Supreme Court, women play major roles in government, they’re running large companies and building media empires – all of this inspires.
Pew also surveyed men and women aged 35 to 64, who responded at roughly the same rate (43 percent and 42 percent) that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is important. In 1997, middle-aged men greatly outranked women: 41 percent to 26 percent.
The big rise in middle-aged women who care about their careers probably reflects both opportunity and necessity, Parker says. But, you’ll notice that young women are more positive about work than their middle-aged counterparts. Parker believes that the allure of “having it all” wears off once women are faced with the reality of supermotherhood. In fact, moms who work full time have told numerous pollsters that they would prefer part-time employment if it were available to them.
Often, scaling back from full-time work means a loss of health benefits, seniority, security and status. Employers as a whole could be doing a better job to help moms cope – and as the women in the 18-to-34 age group move up and have children, perhaps there will be more reason for employers to do so.
Governments could also be doing more to raise the quality of child care and birth leave support for both fathers and mothers.
Finally, individuals need to do a better job of thinking through their competing desires, and choose careers that accommodate parenthood well. Doctors, lawyers and accountants – and people who are willing to shift into lower-paying nonprofit or government sectors – often find more flexibility in their schedules.
Supermom is great as a concept – using all of your human abilities in a lifetime. But there’s a lot more that can be done to take the risk and stress off parents’ shoulders.