One of the greatest advances for working parents since the 1970s is the Family and Medical Leave Act. Signed into law under President Bill Clinton in 1993, the federal law requires em-ployers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees for medical and family needs, including pregnancy, adoption, foster placement, or family illness. And employees can't be fired for requesting or taking leave. Johnston calls it "the most important piece of legislation that has passed in the last 30 years."
That law aside, however, no one has done less for working mothers than the government, say advocates. "The US government has really been the laggard in all Western societies in the construction of formal, governmentally organized child care or family policy," says Ms. Risman.
"A lot of things we say are our values are not in line with the way we spend money as a nation," adds Sornberger. "If we care so much about mothers and children ... why don't we subsidize child care and subsidize maternal and paternal leave?" she asks. "Why don't we offer more part-time and three-quarter-time jobs with benefits?"
That, says Johnston, is just one of a number of challenges working moms continue to face. "Women still take a battering in their careers for motherhood," she says.
The statistics are bruising: Mothers with comparable job experience are 44 percent less likely to be hired than women without children, according to a 2005 study from Cornell University. Even if they are hired, mothers' starting salaries are about $11,000 lower than that of a woman without children. And it gets worse. Mothers tend to earn less and less for each additional child they have, a phenomenon dubbed the "mommy wage gap."
For low-income working mothers, progress has been even slower, says Gloria Thomas, director of the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan, and a single mother of two.
"I don't think we've solved the problem for mothers in low-income and low-skill jobs," she says. "I look at the experiences of my mother, who worked a low-wage job, and I suspect it hasn't gotten any easier for people working those jobs now. We've enjoyed some policies put in place for professional women, but we've got a ways to go to make sure there's equity and opportunity for those who need it most."
The irony, says Sornberger, is that "women's rights was about fighting for giving women a choice." Today, fewer women feel they have a choice – due to economic pressures as well as being in single-parent households – and many feel overburdened.
With that, says Steiner, has come an evolution in expectations. "It's almost like we made a psychic promise to our mothers to make up for what they couldn't have," she says. Younger generations, she says, "saw their mothers kill themselves trying to do it all and vowed not to do the same."
Or as Sornberger says, "We've learned maybe you can have it all, but not all at the same time."
Take Bonnie Boyd Schwerin. A management consultant working 50-hour weeks, Ms. Schwerin left her demanding full-time position for a part-time position with a more family-friendly employer after her daughter, Evelyn, was born.
"I'm sure I've taken a pay hit this year, but my résumé and reputation remain alive," says Schwerin. "This is a much better balance."
Laura Nova, an artist and college professor in New York, was able to cobble together maternity leave and a sabbatical to take 15 months to spend with her son, Gabe.
And Ingrid Ahlgren, a writer and editor from New York, now works two afternoons a week with an educational travel company and freelances in her spare time since giving birth to her daughter, Annika.
"For me this is pretty close to the ideal situation," she says, citing examples of friends who have forged similar arrangements, including a musician who takes her son to gigs.
"Has it gotten any easier?" asks Steiner, who felt pressured to leave her corporate career after starting a family. "It's so much easier now," she says, "but it's still terrible. We have a long ways to go. It's an interesting time to be a mother in America."