Should Parents Work or Stay Home? Americans Say It’s a Matter of Circumstance

family-457235_1280Are you tired of the supposed ongoing “war” between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers? Then you’re going to like this piece of news: a study from researchers at Penn and NYU suggests that most Americans take a much more nuanced view of working parents’ choices than the headlines would have us believe.The researchers asked over 1,500 Americans whether a mother with young children should work outside the home and found that their answers varied enormously depending on the woman’s circumstances. Specifically, it made a difference if the hypothetical woman was a single mother or married; if she was satisfied with her job; if she was satisfied with her childcare arrangements; and if her family depended on her income.If a married woman was satisfied with her job and her childcare and her family depended on her income, 75.5 percent of respondents supported her staying in that full-time job. Their support jumped to 92 percent for a single mother in the same situation. (What the other eight percent of people think a single mother should do instead in those circumstances is a true puzzler, but hey—at least the vast majority of people are supportive.) On the flip side, only 10.3 percent of respondents thought that a married woman who was unsatisfied with her job and childcare and whose income was not necessary to support her family should stay in her full-time job. Likewise, only 15.1 percent of respondents supported a single mother staying in the workforce under similarly undesirable conditions.Before you start lamenting this as evidence that support for working mothers isn’t where it should be in 2015, there’s an important twist you should know about: the researchers asked people how they felt about the same set of conditions when applied to married fathers and found a surprisingly high level of variation in those responses as well.It turns out that Americans don’t think dads should work and be the providers no matter what—not even close. True, if a dad’s job and childcare are going well and his family depends on his income, 96.6 percent of people support his staying in that job. But if a father is unhappy in his job, unsatisfied with his childcare, and the family doesn’t need his income to stay afloat, only 22.9 percent of people think he should keep working full-time.The researchers conclude that “people’s beliefs about parents’ work decisions vary fundamentally depending on the set of options parents face.” They also point out that the high variability around support for fathers working is a big finding: it indicates that “more varied and nuanced views on men and fatherhood appear to be replacing a single criterion.” Or, as one of the researchers put it to The New York Times: “Americans no longer buy into this notion that gender is the most important defining criteria in how families operate. [They] increasingly understand that families face a lot of pressures, and they don’t make these judgments about what men and women should be doing.”