Smart Moms, Hard Choices

When it came to balancing work and family, Stacey Parrent, 26, of Rapid City, S.D., didn't have many choices. Four years ago, after the birth of her first child, she sat down with her husband, an auto mechanic, and crunched the numbers. The best job she could get would pay about $7 an hour, and that would barely cover day-care expenses and gas for her car. So, Stacey opted to become a stay-at-home mom. Raising a family of four on one income isn't easy. But "it's not forever," she says. Next year she's enrolling in college so when her kids are old enough for school, she'll be able to find a good job.

Much has been made of tensions between moms who work and their stay-at-home counterparts. Next month, a new anthology, "Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families" (Random House), is sure to spark even more controversy and soul-searching. The essays, penned by 27 female authors and journalists, describe the profound ambivalence all moms feel about their choices. The decision to stay at home or not, says "Mommy Wars" editor Leslie Morgan Steiner, "is the issue that defines the lives of most mothers."

While the raw emotionalism of the debate is compelling, economists and sociologists who study women in the work force complain that books like "Mommy Wars" can obscure an important reality: most women with children work outside the home. Women who are most likely to stay home with their children are younger than 24 and have obtained high-school diplomas, according to the U.S. Census. Older, more educated moms are more likely to keep working. When women quit to raise kids, they rarely retire for good. According to a report issued in December by the Census, 75 percent of women with school-age children are employed or looking for work. By the time their children are 12 or older, that number rises to 80 percent. "The nature of the economy," says Kathleen Gerson, a New York University sociologist, "means that only a very tiny percentage of wom-en--very wealthy ones," can afford to leave the work force entirely.

Which is not to say that the landscape for working moms isn't changing. While the number of working moms rose dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, those numbers peaked at 73 percent in 2000. Since then, the number of working mothers has dropped about 1.6 percent. But this shift doesn't indicate an "opt-out revolution" among affluent moms, says Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Instead, it reflects a tough labor market. "Yes, the number of moms in the workplace has dropped," Boushey says, "but you can't attribute that to child rearing, since men and childless women have left the workplace at similar rates."

Younger couples are changing the rules, too, says Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage" (Viking) . They've grown up around working women. They've seen the erosion of job security in most economic sectors. As a result, "young men and young women from all walks of life are equipping themselves to support their family or care for their kids as the need arises." They understand that situations change. Leslie Morgan Steiner agrees: of the nine stay-at-home moms who wrote essays for "Mommy Wars," three have already returned to paid employment.

Even contented stay-at-home moms like Angela Dixon, 31, of Collinsville, Ill., know that staying home with the kids might not always be an option. After five years as a paralegal, she and her husband, a truckdriver, decided she should quit to raise their two kids. "If something happens to my husband, if he can't do it for us," Dixon will become a paralegal again. "I was pretty good at it," she says. "I could find a job fast." Right now, though, she's not looking. She says she already has the best job in the world.

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