By Sue Shellenbarger
WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
December 1, 2006
It wasn't easy for Heather Brandon to stay home during her babies' first year of life. It meant a two- thirds drop in her family's income to below $30,000 at one point, wearing thrift-store clothes and eating "a lot of rice and beans," says the Springfield, Mass., writer and photographer. But she and her husband, parents of three small children, did it anyway, because they felt so strongly about overseeing their infants' early development.
The first national demographic analysis of the trend toward new mothers dropping out of the work force sheds new light on women's motives for staying at home. New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the seven-year trend has been broader than previously believed, with women at all income levels taking job breaks, not just the highly educated, prosperous moms examined in many recent studies. And they are staying out of the work force for shorter periods than in the past. This suggests parents are particularly intent on shepherding babies' crucial first year of growth -- a trend no doubt accelerated by research on infant development.
The analysis, prepared for release within the next few weeks, suggests new mothers' hiatus from the work force tends to be one to three years, compared with longer breaks in the past. Nevertheless, the decisions are still sparking radical changes in family life, reordering couples' work-home roles and bringing some households to a financial standstill, ending discretionary purchases, investments and college savings, parents say.
For Rachel Gunderson, Overland Park, Kan., and her husband, who are both teachers, knowledge about how babies' brains grow was a major factor in Ms. Gunderson's decision to stop working after their twins, now 2½, and their third child, now 15 months old, were born. At home, Ms. Gunderson says, "I try to make sure everything we do together involves some kind of learning."
Living on one teacher's salary, the Gundersons regard themselves as "middle income" only "on a good day," Ms. Gunderson says. They have sold their Jeep and avoid eating out or playing golf. As soon as her youngest child passed 1 year of age, Ms. Gunderson started looking for a part-time job and will begin teaching Spanish in January.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics study compared labor- force participation among mothers of infants by husbands' income level and mothers' education and ethnicity. The biggest percentage-point declines in work-force participation, as expected, did come among mothers with a bachelor's degree or more, followed by women with husbands in the top 20% of earners, economists Emy Sok and Sharon Cohany found.
But all other demographic categories showed declines too, including women with husbands whose earnings fell into the middle range, the 40th to 80th percentiles. The dropping-out trend is most pronounced among mothers of children under age 1. Work-force participation rates of all married mothers of infants fell about eight percentage points to 51% in 2004 compared with 1997, the analysis shows. The decline for mothers of 3- to 5-year-old children was less than half as large, down 3.4 percentage points to 63.6%. And for mothers of older children up to age 17, the decline was just 1.6 percentage points.
Whether the balance will continue to shift toward new mothers staying home remains to be seen. Historically, women's movement in and out of the work force over the course of their careers has ebbed and flowed. Data from 2005 show a slight rebound in new mothers' employment rate, but it is too early to call it a trend.
Certainly the importance of women's paychecks to their families has continued to rise, making it more challenging to manage the income loss when Mom stays at home. Bureau data show wives' average contribution to U.S. family income rose to 34.8% in 2004 from 32.7% in 1997 -- the year work-force participation by new mothers first turned south.
Caroline Patterson's decision to quit work as an attorney after her first child was born led her husband to leave his sales job to start his own business, in hopes of boosting their long-term income. Ms. Patterson, of Collegeville, Pa., at first "wanted to take that initial time" with her baby and then return to work. She tried to work part time but had trouble managing child care. Soon, she became so busy managing the household and supporting her husband's start-up that five years later, she is still at home, now with two children, ages 5 and 3.
Kelly Guagenty, a Framingham, Mass., attorney, is planning to stay home until next year, after her baby daughter, now 10 weeks old, turns 1. She feels babies need parent care until "a year at the earliest," she says. But the loss of her income has brought the family's college savings plan to a standstill. And she feels the strain of being unable to use her law degree. "I went to school for a long time," she says. "I feel like I put a lot of work into something and dropped the ball."
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