Work-Life Balance: Beyond the Politics

Sarah Palin’s selection as the Republican nominee for vice president has created a swirl of interest in a sensitive subject: The challenging decisions faced by parents in their home-life vs. work-life balance.

There’s been some kickback on why these questions should be raised only with the arrival of a woman candidate. There’s a clue in the data: In a poll we did a couple of years ago, 85 percent of mothers said they had the primary child-care responsibilities in the family. Just 13 percent said their spouse or partner had main (2 percent) or equally shared (11 percent) responsibilities raising the kids.

Working, moreover, does not eliminate women’s primary child-care tasks. Among working moms, 81 percent still said they had main child-care responsibilities in the family. And even among mothers who described themselves as being on a career track, 76 percent said they were in charge of child-rearing – on top of the day job.

All told, our poll found that 61 percent of mothers hold down paying jobs. That includes 45 percent working full-time, 16 percent part-time. And 37 percent said they're on a career track.

This is not new: as many, 59 percent, said their own mothers worked outside the home when they were kids.

There is some impact on involvement, particularly when comparing at-home and career-track moms. Fifty-eight percent of all mothers told us they feel they’re more involved in their children's lives than their mothers were in theirs – ranging from 63 percent of at-home moms to 55 percent of all working moms and 52 percent of career moms. (Few in any of these groups, 0 to 6 percent, said they feel less involved in their kids' lives.)

In a related and stronger effect, at-home mothers were more apt to say they’re doing a better job than their own mothers did; 47 percent said so, slipping to 34 percent of all working moms and 29 percent of career-track moms.

Nonetheless our results did not support the notion that working moms have more parental guilt. Compared with at-home moms, working mothers are no more apt to feel guilty about not being a good enough mother, are as confident in their child-rearing skills and get along with their kids as well.

Rather than a shift in the extent of parental guilt, there's simply a difference in its cause: Among working mothers, lack of time with the kids is far and away the greatest cause of guilt about parenting. At-home mothers are more apt to cite other causes, such as discipline problems or a lack of money.

We covered related issues in another survey, a year earlier, in which we found that working moms are as satisfied as other women with their lives overall, and with their ability to balance work and family life. And they’re no more likely than other working women to say they’d quit their job or cut their hours if they could.

But time, again, is a different story: Among women who don’t work outside the home, 68 percent told us they’re “very satisfied” with the amount of spare time they have. Among women who don’t have kids at home, it’s 51 percent, fewer but still a majority. But among working moms that plummets: just 20 percent are happy with their free time.

Part of the debate around Palin’s choices likely stems from a certain “Leave it to Beaver” reflex; in our 2005 poll on the subject, three-quarters of Americans agreed with the statement, “It may be necessary for mothers to be working because the family needs money, but it would be better if she could stay home and take care of the house and children.” Even among working mothers themselves, 72 percent agreed.

But, as our analysis at the time noted, there are some problems with that measurement (which we repeated from a 1998 poll). Agree/disagree statements in polls carry acquiescence bias (people tend to agree). This one doesn’t draw working in a particularly positive light. And the results are confounded by personal reality: If they didn’t have to work, 79 percent of working mothers said they’d keep working anyway – just fewer hours. And wouldn’t you know, 80 percent of working dads said the same.

Work-life balance isn’t the only sensitive issue raised by Palin’s candidacy; see also my previous data summary on teen pregnancy. Whether or not these constitute legitimate political fodder, they’re certainly important social issues – and the data that illustrate them serve as a compelling reality check on the rhetoric.

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