Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Raising ChildrenEmerging Needs, Modern Risks, and Social Responses$

Jill Duerr Berrick and Neil Gilbert

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195310122

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195310122.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

Motherhood, Work, and Family Policy

Motherhood, Work, and Family Policy

(p.98) 5 Motherhood, Work, and Family Policy
Raising Children

Neil Gilbert (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter shifts the focus from women on the fast track to high-powered professional careers to mothers employed in average working-and-middle-class jobs. From this perspective, a range of family/work lifestyle choices are examined along with the implications of conventional family-friendly policies — such as daycare and parental leave — for harmonizing work and childrearing. The analysis distinguishes between policies that support the idea of balancing work and family life through the concurrent performance of paid employment and childrearing activities, and those that support a sequential approach to balancing work and family life, which involves an initial investment of five-to-ten years in childrearing without an outside job followed by twenty to thirty years of labor force participation. To equalize policy incentives for both approaches, the chapter recommends that subsidized day care policies be broadened to include home care allowances so as not to disadvantage parents who choose the sequential pattern of balancing work and family life.

Keywords:   family friendly, childrearing, sequential approach, work and family, home care, day care, lifestyle choices

During the past 30 years, the role of motherhood has contracted throughout the advanced industrialized world on three planes—(1) fewer women are having any children; (2) among women having children, more are having just one child; and (3) women having children are spending more time working outside the home.1 This trend extends well beyond the borders of the United States. Indeed, contrary to what one might expect, the birth rates in western European countries have fallen even lower than those in the United States—despite Europe’s more powerful arsenal of family-friendly policies. In this chapter, I analyze the most recent developments in the realignment of work and family life, the broader trends since the mid- 1970s, some of the reasons advanced for these trends, and several interpretations of how family-friendly policies designed to harmonize work and child rearing may have impacted these developments.

Who Is Opting Out of What?

Not too long ago, caring for their children was unquestionably the most important activity that women performed in society. Prior to the 1960s, it was customary for mothers not to work outside the home—a convention acknowledged and reinforced by social policy. Thus, the Aid to Dependent Children’s (ADC) program, under the Social Security Act of 1935, gave cash grants to women who were single parents so they could stay home and care for their children.2 All this began to change after the 1960s, as normative views and (p.99) policies concerning the role of motherhood shifted in response to feminist demands for social and economic equality—and, some might add, labor-force needs. By the late 1990s, women were having fewer children, and mothers were increasingly delegating child care responsibilities to others as they entered the paid workforce in historic proportions for peaceful times.

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, word has been spreading that a revival of home care is underway, with women returning in droves to domestic life, leaving lucrative careers to give birth and raise their children. Reports of this trend have received considerable media attention, which crystallized in 2003 into news of an “opt-out revolution.” Lisa Belkin’s New York Times Magazine article3 about accomplished professional women leaving high-powered jobs to stay home with their kids foreshadowed the coming of a new era—and raised quite a commotion in the feminist community.

The accounts of an opt-out revolution cite some empirical signs of a trend, such as the fact that 22% of mothers with graduate degrees are at home with their children, one in three women with an MBA does not work full time, and 26% of women approaching the most senior levels of management do not want to be promoted. Yet cross-sectional data that provide a snapshot of facts at one point in time do not tell us about how things may be changing—whether there is a revolution afoot or, if so, the direction in which it might be headed. With cross-sectional snapshots of this sort, one would need a Ouija board to detect a social trend. To what extent has the proportion of mothers with college and graduate degrees who stay home with their children varied since 1970? Belkin3 notes that 57% of mothers from the Stanford University class of 1981 stayed home with their young children for at least 1 year in the first decade after graduation. There is no indication, however, of whether that high percentage of mothers at home has increased, decreased, or remained the same over time. And even if there has been an increase since 1970 in the percentage of women who stay home after obtaining graduate degrees from elite universities, one must bear in mind that the proportion of women with graduate degrees in 1970 was significantly lower than it is today.

The most serious evidence of change over time, as shown in Figure 5.1, is the leveling off of female labor-force participation in 1998, which turned into a slight decline of 0.8% between 2000 and 2004. Women aged 25 to 54 accounted for 69% of the female labor force in 2004. Among women in this age group, the decline in labor-force participation was 2 percentage points—much of it attributed to changing behavior of college-educated, married women with children under the age of 3.4 (The rate of decline for college-educated women with young children was 8%.) The reasons for this decline are not clear. A fraction of the change is attributed to the slightly higher unemployment rate in 2004. After carefully estimating the impact of changes in measurable characteristics such as educational attainment, marriage, childbearing, race, income, and unemployment rates, Julie Hotchkiss5 concludes that factors that economists usually rely on simply do not explain the decline in women’s labor-force participation between 2000 and 2004.

(p.100) At the moment, predictions of an opt-out revolution in the next generation lean on thin data over a limited period of time. Viewed in a broader context, the more compelling story of change illustrated in Figure 5.1 involves the long-term trends of a steady increase in the labor-force participation of women alongside the equally steady decline in the percentage of men in the labor force. Not only has there been a significant increase in the percentage of women joining the labor force over the last generation, but these women are coming with more powerful credentials. The main difference between women in the 1970s and today is that a substantially higher percentage are currently obtaining high-status professional degrees and completing graduate education in general. Between 1970 and 2002, the proportion of all medical, law, dentistry, and business administration degrees awarded to women increased by almost 529% for medical degrees, 888% for law, 4,277% for dentistry, and over 1,000% for business.6, 7As women have entered the labor force with more educational preparation, they have increasingly expressed a bent for entrepreneurial activity. Between 1997 and 2004, the number of companies owned by women climbed by 20%—twice the growth rate in the total number of U.S. businesses. Similar to most businesses, the vast majority owned by women were single-person enterprises.8

                      Motherhood, Work, and Family Policy

Figure 5.1. Labor force participation rates over time. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From a longitudinal perspective, the women currently opting out of jobs and professional careers in order to stay home with their children are nibbling at the margins of a profound lifestyle trend that has extended over the past several decades—a development deftly portrayed (some might say celebrated) (p.101) in the media. After a 6-year run, the popular HBO series Sex and the City ended in 2004 with what was widely regarded as a happy ending. Each of the four heroines, in their late 30s or early 40s, found love and commitment while pursing a gratifying career. The series finale was a paean to love and individual fulfillment. But as for family life, these four vibrant, successful women approaching the terminus of their childbearing years ended up with only two marriages and one child between them. As a mirror of society, the media shift from kids bouncing off the walls in The Brady Bunch to the 25% fertility rate in Sex and the City several decades later clearly reflects the cultural and demographic trends over this period.

Today, almost one in five women in their early 40s is childless. As shown in Table 5.1, that is close to double the proportion of childless women in 1976. Compared to the relatively few Ivy League law graduates who have traded the bar for rocking the cradle, the abdication of motherhood poses an alternative and somewhat more compelling answer to the question, “Who is opting out of what?” Women are increasingly having fewer children, and a growing proportion is choosing not to have any children at all.

Table 5.1. Percent Distribution of Women 40 to 44 Years Old by Number of Children

                      Motherhood, Work, and Family Policy

Source: Downs, B. (2003, Oct.). Fertility rate of American women: June 2002. Current Population Reports. U.S. Census Bureau, Table 2.

The increasing rate of childlessness is not unique to the United States. The proportions of childless women aged 40 in Britain, Austria, Switzerland, and Sweden are about the same as that in the United States.9 Family size is shrinking amid declining fertility rates in the advanced industrial democracies. Although the U.S. fertility rate fell from 2.48 in 1970 to 2.06 in 2000, it remains higher than those of all of the European Union countries, among which Italy and Spain have the lowest birth rates (about 1.3).10 Norway, with one of the highest fertility rates (1.8) in Europe, comes closest to the United States.11

Not only are women having fewer children, but mothers are increasingly delegating child care responsibilities to others. Both poor and nonpoor mothers (p.102) are leaving the daily care of their preschool children to other people. Between 1991 and 2001, the proportion 3- to 5-year-old children supervised by caregivers other than their parents increased from 69% to 74%.7 A significant number of these children spent the better part of their days in out-of-home care.

According to estimates from the Urban Institute,12 41% of all children under 5 years of age whose mothers are employed are in daycare for 35 hours a week or longer (the figure rises to 52% for those whose mothers work full time.)

Do the dramatic increase in childlessness—from 1 in 10 to almost 1 in 5 women—and the rise in out-of-home care for young children qualify as a social “revolution?” It could be said that if women have been “opting out” of anything, it’s reproduction. The revolt against motherhood appears to be more deep-seated than the recent decline in labor-force participation brought to the public’s attention by the media reports about professional women trading high-powered careers for child-rearing activities. Still, the ebb in labor-force participation should not be dismissed too readily—it might be the first ripple in a sea change.

Family/Work Lifestyle Alternatives

Talk of social revolutions conveys a sense of fundamental change in people’s values—a new awakening that is compelling women to substitute one type of life for another. Claims of an “opt-out revolution” from motherhood to the labor market, or the other way around, imply that whatever it is women really want, they all pretty much want the same thing when it comes to career and family. It may have looked that way in earlier times. Although the question of what women want has plagued men for ages, it became a serious matter for women only in modern times, and then only in the advanced, industrialized countries. Before the contraceptive revolution of the mid-1960s, biology may not have been destiny, but it certainly contributed to the childbearing fate of women engaging in sexual activity.13 Most women needed men for their economic survival before the equal-opportunity movement of the 1960s, which opened access to virtually all careers. Moreover, the expansion of white collar jobs and jobs for secondary earners since the 1960s has presented women with a viable range of employment alternatives to traditional domestic life. Taken together, these advances in contraceptive technology and civil rights, along with labor market changes, have transformed women’s opportunities to control and shape their personal lives.14 In today’s advanced industrialized world, decisions about the course of women’s lives—especially whether or not to have children and whether or not to seek paid employment—are governed less by biology and necessity than at any time in history. Thus, modern women can partake in a range of lifestyle alternatives heretofore unknown to all but a privileged few.

(p.103) What are these lifestyles? Taking family size as a powerful indicator of lifestyle alternatives, I can distinguish at least four general categories that form a continuum of work/family choices (Table 5.2). This classification is an ideal type in the Weberian sense—an analytic frame, which encapsulates a set of essential characteristics that distinguish women’s family/work lifestyle choices. The categories are logical but by no means exhaustive,15 and, as with any typology of this sort, there are exceptions within every category. It helps to think of the categories as “usually, but not always.”

Table 5.2. Family\Work Lifestyles: U.S. Women Aged 40 to 44 in 2002





Family Size

Childless (17.9%)

One child (17.4%)

Two children (35.4%)

Three or more children (29.3 %)







Professional and economic success

Career and socialization

Socialization and employment

Socialization, care, and household management

Policy-Oriented Interests

Employment opportunity

Employment opportunity and child care

Part-time work and caring benefit

Supports for in-home care

At one end of the continuum are women with three or more children. Most of these women derive most of their sense of personal identity and achievement from traditional child-rearing responsibilities and from practicing the domestic arts. While their approaches to child rearing may differ, the constant that traditional mothers share is an abiding belief that the daily care and socialization of their children represent the most meaningful job in life—a job to which they are devoted full time and from which they draw a deep sense of personal accomplishment. Even if they do not all perform the job the same way, the time and value they attribute to it and the satisfactions derived place this work at center of their daily lives.

There was a pronounced tilt away from the traditional side of the continuum as the proportion of women with three children at the end of their childbearing years sank from about 59% in 1976 to 29% in 2002. At the other end of the continuum, the number of women who are childless climbed to historic proportions, increasing almost 80% during the same period.16 In the past, high rates of childlessness have been attributed to intense poverty, poor nutrition, and the absence of men due to wars, but those conditions do not apply today, nor do modern rates of infertility explain the decline.17

(p.104) This group is characterized by individualistic, work-centered women engaged in what might be called the “postmodern” lifestyle. Here, personal success tends to be measured by achievements in business, political, and intellectual life rather than in the traditional realms of motherhood and child rearing. Many of these women are among the high achievers in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, among whom 42% were childless after age 40 (a figure that climbed to 49% among the women in her sample who earned $100,000 or more).18 The “postmoderns” are disproportionately well educated. An analysis of the women who graduated college in the late 1960s and early 1970s showed that 28% were childless by the time they reached 37 to 47 years of age in 1991, a rate that climbed to 50% among the women in that cohort of graduates who had active careers.19

In the middle categories, about 53% of women currently over age 40 have either one or two children. These women are interested in paid work but not so thoroughly committed to a career that they would forego motherhood. Although a bare majority, this group is often seen as representative of all women—and of the women who “want it all.” In balancing the demands of employment and family, women with one child normally tip the scales in favor of their careers, while the group with two children leans more toward domestic life. Thus, the women clustered around the center of the continuum are divided into two basic categories—“neotraditional” and “modern”—that vary in degrees from the traditional and the postmodern lifestyles.

The neotraditional group contains families with two children whose working mothers are physically and emotionally invested more in their home life than in their jobs, which are often part time. Since 1976, the proportion of women over age 40 with two children has increased by 75% and currently amounts to about 35% of the women in that cohort. The modern family usually involves a working mother with one child; these women are more career oriented and devote greater time and energy to their paid employment than do neotraditional women. The proportion of women over 40 with one child has climbed by almost 90% since 1976, and currently amounts to 17% of the women in that cohort.

As general types, the traditional, neotraditional, modern, and postmodern categories help draw attention to both the diversity of work and family choices and to how the size of these groups has shifted over the past three decades. Ideal types are like impressionist paintings. They portray sufficient dimensions of a category to evoke meaning, but the borders are fuzzy and porous. So, let me repeat: in each group there are women who do not fit the “ideal” type—childless women who do not work and women employed full-time with three or more children at home. Also, there are women in each group who would have wanted to be in another category, with more or fewer children than they have. Accident, illness, divorce, poor timing, and plain bad luck may have hampered lifestyle choices for some.

(p.105) Certainly some women would rather not go to work, and some would prefer to have additional children, but many of these women are compelled out of dire economic necessity to participate in the labor force and to have fewer children. For most people in the United States, however, I argue that what is often considered economic “necessity” amounts to a preferred level of material comfort—home ownership, automobiles, vacations, cell phones, DVDs, and the like. Poor people on public assistance tend to have as many children as the national average. Still, I grant that this point, of course, is debatable and requires more than a bald assertion to carry the case.20 For the sake of argument, however, let us accept that the tradeoff between higher levels of material consumption and a more traditional domestic life is more (although not entirely) a matter of individual choice rather than of economic survival.

As noted, since the 1960s, women’s capacity to exercise choice in regard to family size was dramatically advanced by opportunities to control procreation through modern contraception, legalized abortion, and assisted reproductive technology. At the same time, their options regarding labor-force participation increased, which were followed by changes in family size and patterns of employment. This realignment of family/work lifestyles raises a question: Why does it at least appear that many women are opting out of or reducing their involvement in the role of motherhood? There are various ideas and hypotheses about the decline of motherhood.

  • It may be a matter of purely personal preference: Hakim14 argues that now that women are actually free to choose, there is a “normal distribution” among women in their preferences for motherhood—a small percentage do not want children, a medium-sized percentage want one or two children, and a small percentage want three or more children.

  • With divorce rates high and people feeling vulnerable to unemployment and to global competition, women are increasingly insecure about the future and reluctant to start a family.

  • Women want children as much as ever but have postponed getting pregnant in order to invest in increasing their human capital, which then makes it more costly to have a family—they wait too long and risk infertility or not being able to have more than one child.

  • Normative expectations about what constitutes “the good life” are changing—with more emphasis being given to materialism and individual pleasures and less to the emotional joys and sacrifices of having children.

  • The struggle to harmonize work and family life makes it difficult to have children.

These possibilities are not mutually exclusive and may contribute in varying degrees to the realignment in family lifestyles. Although much could be said about each of these ideas, for now I would like to focus on the last one—efforts to harmonize work and family life—because it relates most directly to developments in social policy. In considering the struggle to harmonize work and (p.106) family life, I will focus particularly on what we might learn from the European experience in using family-friendly policies.

Family-Friendly Policies: European Experiences

Western European countries are well known for having a powerful arsenal of daycare and other family-friendly benefits. For example, over 70% of the children from 3 years to school age in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden are in publicly financed child care.21 In contrast, the United States is considered a laggard in dispensing parental leave, daycare, and other public subsidies to reduce the friction between raising a family and holding a job. Since the early 1990s, however, the United States has been increasing public expenditures in child care programs. One estimate shows, for example, that between 1994 and 1999 public spending on child care climbed by almost 60%.22 Given the general direction of U.S. policy, it may be instructive to examine how motherhood and family life have fared in light of the changing levels of family-friendly benefits available in the industrialized countries of the European Union.

As female labor-force participation rates rose, public efforts were made in many European countries to reduce the friction between work and family life. One way to estimate the effects of these efforts is to ask, how did patterns of public spending on family-friendly services such as daycare, household services, and other family benefits in kind vary with marriage and fertility rates? Although the pattern of spending on family-friendly benefits rises and falls, overall the average rates of public expenditure on these benefits as a percentage of gross domestic product increased from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. The average rates of spending had an inverse relationship with average fertility rates and showed a similar relation to marriage rates23 (Figure 5.2). Analyses conducted separately on each country show some variance from the overall pattern that emerges when averaging their results, particularly with regard to fertility rates, which had positive correlations with spending on family benefits in 5 (4 of which were significant) of the 15 countries.

                      Motherhood, Work, and Family Policy

Figure 5.2. Average fertility rates and family service expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product of 15 European countries (1987 to 1997). Source: Eurostat. (1999). Eurostat Yearbook: A statistical eye on Europe (1987–1997). Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Community; OECD Social Expenditure Database 1980 to 1997. (2000). Paris: OECD.

Family-friendly policies, of course, involve more than what is captured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data on family benefit expenditures. For example, over 70% of the employed women in the Netherlands work in part-time jobs that have benefits similar to those of full-time employment, and Dutch children spend more days per year in school than do most elementary school students in the European Union. A thorough assessment of measures that weigh into efforts to balance work and family life would include parental leave, flexible work schedules, number and length of school days, paid vacation time, and family allowances.22 Some of these benefits are reflected in the OECD data on total public expenditures, analyses of which reveal patterns that parallel the findings noted above. That is, rates of total public expenditure between 1987 and 1997 are inversely

(p.107) related to both fertility (Figure 5.3) and marriage rates. Still, even when total public expenditures are considered, there are many distinctions in the variety of measures that operate in different countries—which is to say that the findings that fertility and marriage rates generally declined as spending on family benefits and total public expenditure have increased can only be taken as suggestive. But what do they suggest?

                      Motherhood, Work, and Family Policy

Figure 5.3. Average fertility rates and average public expenditure as percentage of gross domestic product of 15 European countries (1987–1997). Source: Eurostat. (1999). Eurostat yearbook: A statistical eye on Europe (1987–1997). Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Community; OECD Social Expenditure Database 1980 to 1997 (2000). Paris: OECD.

Believers, Skeptics, and Disbelievers

Overall, these findings lend themselves to at least three broad interpretations—representing those who believe in the salutary effects of family-friendly policies, those who are skeptical, and disbelievers. It is clear in regard to the general direction of change that the increasing levels of family-friendly services did not reverse whatever forces—economic, normative, social/psychological preferences, etc.—were driving down fertility and marriage rates. Believers would argue, however, that although family-friendly policies did not appear to strengthen the formation of family life (by increasing the presence of children and marriage), in the absence of these benefits the declines would have been even sharper—that is, these benefits acted as a brake, slowing things up. As (p.108) evidence, one might point to the fact that in three of the countries—Denmark, Sweden, and Finland—that showed significant positive correlations between fertility rates and public expenditure on family benefits, the rates of expenditure were proportionately more than twice as high as that of most of the other countries.

This suggests that the decline can be diminished if significant resources are invested in family services. (One might add that Sweden also had the highest cohabitation rates, and some observers find a general relationship between cohabitation and fertility rates.24)

Invoking the mantra “Correlation is not causality,” skeptics find little reason to assume that these policies are either friendly or unfriendly to families—and read the results as confirming that family-friendly policies make no palpable difference. They point out that if indeed these benefits served as a brake on declining rates of fertility and marriage, then one would expect to find the lowest marriage and fertility rates in countries that lagged behind in the family-friendly benefits, of which the United States is a prime example—except that the U.S. rates are higher than those of the European Union. Skeptics would no doubt refer to the history of children’s allowances in France, which were initiated under the Family Code of 1939 with the explicit goal of increasing the birthrate. Although the French birthrate increased considerably in the decades after World War II, during the same period the (p.109) United States—with no children’s allowance—also experienced a dramatic rise in the birthrate, while the birthrate in Sweden declined despite its allowance system.25 The skeptic argues that decisions concerning marriage and family size address fundamental conditions of human existence and social expectations, which do not yield readily to the lubrications of social policy.

Finally, disbelievers conclude that so-called family-friendly policies are not really friendly to family life. Rather, they argue that although the inverse correlations between expenditures on public benefits offered to harmonize work and family life and fertility/marriage rates do not represent definitive explanations, they are indicative of two firm underlying realities.

The first is an unyielding tension between a life centered on family—meeting the continuous demands of marriage, child rearing, and household management—and a life centered on paid employment and meeting the continuous demands of a full-time career. As any woman who has tried it can testify, balancing paid work and family life demands extraordinary physical exertion and personal sacrifices on the part of most mothers during the early childhood years. Caring for young children is immensely labor intensive and relentless. A two-earner family with two children under 5 years of age hits the ground running between 6:00 and 6:30 AM; the kids have to be washed, fed, dressed, and out the door in time to get to the daycare providers well before the parents are due at their jobs. At 5:00 PM, the parents leave work and rush to pick up the kids and take them home to be fed, undressed, and put to bed. This tight daily routine can be further squeezed by jobs that require evening meetings, out-of-town travel, overtime, and take-home work. On top of the daily routine there is weekly shopping for the household, buying children’s clothes, cleaning, laundry, doctors’ appointments, haircuts, and coping with pinkeye, strep throat, and ear infections that regularly strike without warning. It does not take much for things to spin out of control—a dead car battery, a broken washing machine, or a leaky roof will do it.

Although many men have increased their involvement in domestic life (whether due to genetic indisposition, poor socialization, ineptitude, or some combination thereof), their participation in traditional female duties has fallen far short of a fair share. The empirical reality is that most working mothers continue to assume the brunt of household and child care responsibilities. And with all the working mothers’ efforts, at the end of each week, their young children have spent the majority of their waking hours with their physical needs being met and their personalities being shaped by other people.

The second reality is that the main threads of family-friendly policies are tied to and reinforce female labor-force participation—and would more aptly be labeled “market friendly.” These policies are largely, though not entirely, associated with publicly provided care for children and supports for periods of parental leave. To qualify for parental-leave benefits, it is necessary to have a job before having children. The incentive for early attachment to the labor force is bolstered by publicly subsidized daycare. Child care services both compensate for the absence of parental child care in families with working (p.110) mothers and generate an economic spur for mothers to shift their labor from the home to the market. In Sweden, for example, free daycare services are state subsidized by as much as $11,900 per child.26 They are free at the point of consumption but paid for dearly by direct and indirect taxes—in 1990, Swedish taxes absorbed the highest proportion of the gross domestic product of all the OECD countries. Paying in advance for the “ free” daycare service tends to squeeze mothers into the labor force, because the crushing tax rates make it difficult for the average family to get by on the salary of one wage earner. State-sponsored social welfare activities accounted for about three-quarters of the net job creation in Sweden between 1970 and 1990, with almost all of these public-service positions being filled by women.27 Thus much of the voluntary labor animated by a sense of family commitment and invested in care for children, disabled kin, and elderly relatives was redirected to providing social care to strangers for pay.

In sum, the disbeliever argues that the quality of family life suffers when mothers with young children go to work; hence, policies that create incentives to shift informal labor invested in child care and domestic production to the realm of paid employment are not “family friendly.” From this perspective, there is a meaningful connection between the decline in marriage and fertility that has accompanied increasing investments in family benefits in recent decades.

Seen in the context of women’s diverse interests in work and family life, each of the interpretations outlined above frames a slice of reality. That is, the consequences of family-friendly policies vary in strength and direction for women who may be drawn toward different lifestyle preferences. The skeptic is correct in the sense that these policies probably have little effect on women at the two ends of the work/family continuum—those who prefer the traditional or postmodern lifestyles. Just as the availability of subsidized child care services is unlikely to redirect women who are career centered and not interested in having children, it is doubtful that most women disposed toward rearing three or more children would be seriously influenced by the prospect of having their children cared for on a daily basis by other people.

Although there is a degree of elasticity within each lifestyle category, the largest potential for movement is among the lifestyles in the center. On one hand, the believer probably has a point in that child care and other family benefits facilitate the lifestyle objectives of the modern group: the left-of-center along the work/lifestyle continuum—which is most work oriented and inclined to limit family size. In the absence of family benefits, the increased difficulty of rearing children while actively pursuing a career might have a dampening effect on fertility and marriage rates among these women—some of whom might move into the postmodern lifestyle. On the other hand, the disbelievers’ view that most family-friendly policies undermine the institution they are purported to support probably resonates with many women in the neotraditional group for whom work is secondary to child care. In the absence of family benefits that create incentives to work and lend impetus to the normative devaluation of (p.111) childrearing and the domestic arts, fertility rates might rise, as some of the women disposed toward a neotraditional lifestyle would gravitate into the traditional category.

Policy Implications: Balancing Public Incentives

The analysis of diverse preferences underscores the reality that family policies can be friendlier to some types of lifestyle choices than to others. Recognition of this diversity also invites us to explore alternatives to the conventional perspective on family policies designed to harmonize work and family life. The conventional approach is implicitly oriented toward helping mothers to work while raising children. It is informed by the traditional experience of men, which basically involves a seamless transition from school to the paid labor force, along with a drive to rise as high as possible in the given line of work. This male model of an early start and a continuous work history imposes a temporal frame on policies to harmonize work and family life, which stresses the idea of “balancing” the concurrent performance of labor-force participation and child-rearing activities. Child care services and even periods of parental leave facilitate an ongoing and relatively stable work history—a lifestyle preferred by many, although clearly not all, women. But the male model creates a narrow perspective on lifestyle choices. Viewing the issue from a life-course perspective reframes and extends the choices by including the possibility that a “balance” between motherhood and employment might be achieved by sequential as well as concurrent patterns of paid and domestic work.

From a life-course perspective, the conventional continuum of family/work lifestyle choices is reframed to encompass not only women who want to combine work and family life at the same time but also those who might envision investing all their resources in child care and domestic activities for 5 to 10 years and then spending the next 25 to 30 years in paid employment. There are good reasons why some women, particularly among those in the traditional and neotraditional categories, might prefer the tradeoffs of the sequential approach to balancing motherhood and employment. The contributions of full-time homemakers to their families and to society vary according to different stages of the family life cycle. The early years of childhood are critical for social and cognitive development; some mothers want to invest more heavily in shaping this development than in advancing their employment prospects. Home care during the early childhood years is labor intensive, which heightens the economic value of the homemaker’s contribution during that period. Finally, as the span of life has lengthened, even after 10 years at home, most women would have more than 25 years to invest in paid employment—enough time to extinguish the alleged joys of work for many people.28 Of course, choosing to invest 5 to 10 years in child care and household management would cut off a few career options that require early training, many years of preparation, or the athletic prowess of youth, and a later start lessens the (p.112) likelihood of rising to the very top of the ladder in many career lines. Those are the tradeoffs for the choice to enjoy two callings in life.

Various measures could be initiated to support the choice of a sequential approach to balancing family and work. For example, we have seen that the federal government already provides about $16 billion in subsidies for a variety of cash and in-kind benefits to working parents who place their children in daycare. The provision of similar supports through tax credits and home-care allowances to full-time homemakers with children under 5 years of age would afford parents greater freedom to choose between caring for children at home and consuming state-subsidized daycare benefits. To guard against home-care benefits that would end up disproportionately subsidizing wealthy families, these schemes could be progressively indexed. The home-care allowance would create a time limit that is potentially longer (if there is more than one child in the family) than the period of welfare coverage under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but not as open-ended as in the social-assistance benefits previously available in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Some might object that this allowance would create an incentive for low-income mothers to stay at home during the early years of child rearing. However, on balance, it is not necessarily the case that this outcome would be detrimental to most of their children or to society.

In 1998, Norway initiated a policy to pay cash benefits to all families with children up to 3 years old as long as the child was not enrolled in a state-subsidized daycare center. Finland employs a similar policy, which was fully implemented in 1989. Between 1989 and 1995, labor-force participation of Finnish women with children under 3 years old declined from 68% to 55%.29

Direct child-rearing benefits are not the only way that public benefits can be redesigned to balance incentives for lifestyle choices involving both out-of-home employment and home care during the early childhood years. Several countries provide varying amounts of pension credits toward retirement to parents who stay home to care for young children. Family-friendly policies might even award “social” credits for each year at home with young children, which could be exchanged for benefits that would assist parents in making the transition from homemaker to paid employment; such benefits could include tuition for academic and technical training and preferential points on federal civil service examinations.30 The social credit scheme would be somewhat akin to certain veterans’ benefits, which were granted in recognition of people who sacrificed career opportunities while serving the nation. In shaping the moral and physical stock of future citizens, the homemaker’s contribution to national well-being is obviously quite different from that of veterans. By recognizing this contribution, the family social credit scheme would elevate the sagging status of domestic activities and child-rearing functions as well as reinforce the thinning fabric of informal social support networks.

The case for rethinking what we mean by “family-friendly” policies is put forth not to advance the sequential pattern of motherhood and employment but to give equal consideration to the diverse values and lifestyle preferences (p.113) that influence how women respond to the conflicting demands of work and family life. As things now stand, public policies are far from neutral in offering incentives that support either caring for young children at home or joining the paid labor force and outsourcing a large part of the daily job of motherhood.



(1.) This chapter is a revised and expanded version of my article “What Do Women Really Want,” published in The Public Interest (Winter 2005).

(2.) The monthly ADC grants—$18 for the first child and $12 for each additional child—were based roughly on the amount received by families of soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. In Leiby, J. (1978). History of social welfare and social work in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

(3.) Belkin, L. (2003) The opt-out revolution. The New York Times Magazine, October 26.

(4.) Bradbury, K., & Katz, J. (2005). Women’s rise: A work in progress. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Regional Review, 14(3), 58–67.

(5.) Hotchkiss, J. (August, 2005). What’s up with the decline in female labor force participation? Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Working Paper 2005–18.

(7.) U.S. Census Bureau. (2006). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2006 (p. 378). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

(8.) U.S. Census Bureau. (January, 2006). Women-owned firms: 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

(9.) Coleman, D. (1996). New patterns and trends in European fertility: International and sub-national comparisons. In D. Coleman (Ed.), Europe’s population in 1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(10.) Eurostat. (2002). Eurostat Yearbook 2002: The statistical guide to Europe. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Community.

(11.) Here we find a similar pattern of change in family size. Although the rate (12.3%) of women without children at age 40 is smaller than that in the United States, the cohort of Norwegian women aged 40 in 1998 had a 25% higher rate of childlessness and a 35% higher rate of having one child than did women at the age of 40 in 1975. During that period, the number of Norwegian women with two children increased by 33%, and the number with three or more children at the age of 40 declined by 33%. In 1998, Norwegian women aged 40 with the most education had the highest rate (19%) of childlessness (Lappegard, T. [2000]. New fertility trends in Norway. Demographic Research, 2[3]; electronic version available at www.demographic-research.org/Volumes/V012/3). Hakim14 reports a somewhat higher rate of 14% to 15% of Norwegian women being childless at age 40 (p. 51).

(12.) Capizzano, J., & Adams, G. (March, 2000). The hours that children under five spend in child care: Variations across states. New Federalism National Survey of American Families. Series B, No. B-8. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

(13.) Up until 1972, it was illegal in Massachusetts to provide contraceptives to single people to prevent pregnancy. See Eisenstadt v. Baird (405 U.S. 438). The distribution (p.114) of contraceptives to minors was legalized in 1977 in the case of Carey v. Population Services International (431 U.S. 678).

(14.) Hakim, C. (2000). Work life-style choices in the 21st century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(15.) Weber’s “ideal-types” were not ideal in the sense of achieving perfection or representing exemplary values; they were constructs that captured the central tendencies of a phenomenon but were by no means exhaustive. Expanding the frame to include marital status, sexual orientation, and income might generate additional categories. There were, as Weber put it, “ideal-types of brothels as well as religions.” See Miller, S. M. (Ed.) (1963). Max Weber: Selections from his work (p. 31). New York: Thomas Crowell.

(16.) Although there were high rates of childlessness during earlier periods of the twentieth century, the rates in 2002 are historic in the sense that they have never been this high in such prosperous and relatively peaceful times.

(17.) Citing the findings of the United Nations-supported World Fertility Survey in the 1970s, which revealed that primary infertility affects only 2% to 3% of women aged 25 to 50, Hakim14 notes that infertility does not account for the sharp rise in childlessness after mid-1970s (p. 54).

(18.) Hewlett, S. A. (2002). Creating a life: Professional women and the quest for children. New York: Talk Miramax Books.

(19.) Goldin, C. (July, 1995). Career and families: College women look to the past. Working paper No. 5188. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

(20.) A more detailed argument is developed in Gilbert, N. (2008). A mother’s work: How feminism, the market and policy shape family life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

(21.) Gornick, J., Meyers, M., & Ross, K. (1997). Supporting the employment of mothers: Policy variations across fourteen welfare states. Journal of European Social Policy, 7(1), 45–70.

(22.) Besharov, D., & Samuri, N. (2000). Child care after welfare reform. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.

(23.) For fertility rates r = —0.568 (p < 0.10) and for marriages r = —0.767 (p < 0.01). Because we cannot assume that the data in these analyses (average rates of the same group of countries at different time periods) involve independent observations, Pearson’s r cannot be used to test hypotheses or predict future relationships. It is reported here only as a way to summarize the observed relationship between two variables.

(24.) Billari, F. C., & Kohler, H. P. (2004). Patterns of low and lowest-low fertility in Europe. Population Studies, 58(2), 161–176.

(25.) Schorr, A. (1965). Income maintenance and the birth rate. Social Security Bulletin, 28(12), 2–10.

(26.) Swedish Institute. (1992). Child care in Sweden. Stockholm: Swedish Institute.

(27.) Esping-Andersen, G. (1991). The welfare state in the reorganization of working life. In P. Sanders and D. Encel (Eds.), Social policy in Australia: Options for the 1990s (Vol. 1). New South Wales: Social Policy Research Center, University of New South Wales.

(28.) For an analysis of early retirement trends and reasons given for leaving work, see Gilbert, N. (2005). Family life: Sold on work. Society, 42(3), 12–17.

(29.) The home-care allowances were cut back substantially in 1995, followed by a 3% decline in the Finnish birthrate the next year. See Sipila, J., and Korpinin, J. (1998). Cash versus child care services in Finland. Social Policy and Administration, 32(3), 263–277.

(30.) For a more detailed discussion of an earlier social credit proposal, see Gilbert, N. (1983). Capitalism and the welfare state. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.