Favorite

The supermom myth 

WORKING IT: Balancing act for Ryall.
  • WORKING IT: Balancing act for Ryall.

When Mallory Jewell had her first child 10 years ago, her plan was to go back to her job in human resources at Alltel — as the company’s first professional-level part-time employee.

But when she decided midway through her maternity leave to quit altogether and stay home with her son, only her husband, his mother and her mother supported her decision.

“Everyone else in my family and professionally were not supportive,” she said. “I really felt I had let people down.”

A decade later, professional moms-to-be are at least as likely to encounter the opposite attitude, thanks in part to a rash of stories in the New York Times and other national media over the last four years that have trumpeted a supposedly growing trend of successful, professional women “opting out” — choosing to leave their careers behind, at least for a couple of years, when they have children. These women are portrayed as the new supermoms: Able to have it all, one part at a time.

The trouble with these stories, though, is that they are at best incomplete, and at worst inaccurate. And experts in work-life issues say they’re having a dramatic negative effect on efforts to solve the very real problems most mothers have reconciling their roles as caregivers with their desire — and, for most, need — to continue working after they have children.

The “new” trend of professional mothers leaving the workforce has been written about in the New York Times for the last 20 years, says Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Last fall, Williams published a study analyzing 119 newspaper stories written since 1980 about the opt-out phenomenon.

But the storyline really picked up steam in 2003, when the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy piece called “The Opt-Out Revolution” that profiled a book club in Atlanta and a moms’ group in San Francisco, both made up of Ivy-League-educated women who’d left their high-paying jobs to care for their children full-time. Two years later, another Times story claimed that 60 percent of female Ivy League students the reporter had surveyed said they already planned to quit their jobs or work only part-time when they had children.

Some of the articles cite census figures and academic studies — specifically, that the percentage of mothers of infant children who worked peaked in 1998 at 59 percent, and dropped to 53 percent by 2005. But most rely heavily on anecdotes — stories of individual women, mostly white, all very well educated, and all married to men who happened to make enough money that they didn’t need a second income.

The numbers simply don’t support the idea of a growing trend involving large numbers of women, said Heather Boushey, an economist with the Center for Economic Policy Research and author of a paper called “Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth,” published in 2005.

“This is really one of those very interesting stories where every journalist in New York and Washington knows someone who does [choose to stay home], and writes a bunch of stories about it,” she said.

The census numbers, Boushey said, don’t tell the full story about new mothers leaving the workforce. They don’t reflect the fact that the recession of 2001 hit women harder than men; more women in general found themselves out of work. Women with very young children — and highly paid husbands — had less financial incentive to fight to stay in the workforce, and perhaps more incentive to explain their unemployment as a choice made for the good of their children.

Favorite

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

More by Jennifer Barnett Reed

  • Learning to love North Little Rock in Park Hill

    Any description of North Little Rock's Park Hill neighborhood will eventually, inevitably, include a comparison to Hillcrest, its better-known cousin south of the river.
    • Dec 28, 2011
  • A reason to splash

    Fun rain gear and more at InJoy.
    • Mar 12, 2009
  • Pick up some spice

    And we ain’t talking about tarragon.
    • Feb 26, 2009
  • More »

Most Shared

  • Who's harming women?

    Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is an Arkansas Republican. Thus, like the governor and the Republican-majority legislature, she intends to do everything she can to deny women comprehensive medical care, particularly abortion.
  • New normal

    No two presidential candidates since polling began have run up negatives as massive as those of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who yet won their parties' nominations easily. "What gives?" may be the biggest political mystery in history.
  • Additional rape charges filed against Conway doctor

    Special Prosecutor Jason Barrett has added 11 more victims to two others alleging rape by Dr. Robert Rook of Conway.
  • Big Dam Bridge 100 brings big damn complaint about celebrity rider Hincapie

    The Big Dam Bridge 100 is this weekend and one dedicated biker isn't happy about a celebrity rider, admitted doper George Hincapie.
  • Delta Cultural Center new director: Prophet Kyle T. Miller

    Kyle T. Miller, who describes himself as a "licensed and ordained prophet" and says he has been "prophesying and interpreting dreams for almost 15 years," has been named the director of the Delta Cultural Center at Helena.

Latest in Top Stories

  • Good for the soul

    The return of Say McIntosh, restaurateur
    • Jun 1, 2010
  • Robocalls are illegal

    Robocalls -- recorded messages sent to thousands of phone numbers -- are a fact of life in political campaigns. The public doesn't like them much, judging by the gripes about them, but campaign managers and politicians still believe in their utility.
    • May 31, 2010
  • Riverfest winds down

    With Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm, Steve Miller Band, Robert Cray, Ludacris and more performing.
    • May 30, 2010
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »

September

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30  
 

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation