Census: New Moms Returning to Work

More mothers are returning to the labor force within a year of giving birth, the Census Bureau says. When they do go back to work, it’s more likely to be on a full-time than part-time basis.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that all these women are spending 40-hour weeks in an office cubicle while their children sit in day care. In this tight labor market, more employers are offering flexible work schedules and benefits to new moms.

And some are working at home.

“Working mothers can command it because there’s such a shortage of good qualified candidates that employers need to start thinking about what [candidates] are looking for,” said Kirsten Ross of Warren, Mich. She quit her office job to start a home-based Web site — www.womans-work.com — which helps women find alternative work arrangements. Ross gave birth to her second child in March, and has run the site since May.

Not Known How Many Work at Home

Of the 3.6 million women who gave birth from July 1997 through June 1998, about 59 percent returned to the work force within a year of having the baby, according to Census estimates being released today. That compares with 31 percent in 1976, the year the Census Bureau began tracking the data, and 51 percent in 1987.

Of the new mothers most recently checked, 36 percent went back full-time, 17 percent part-time, and nearly 6 percent were unemployed but actively looking for work. It was the first time the bureau looked at full- or part-time status, Census analyst Amaru Bachu said.

The report did not track how many of the mothers who returned to work actually performed that work at home. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, from May 1997, indicates one-fifth of all working mothers with children under 18 worked part- or full-time at home.

“With the economy so good, there are more jobs available,” said Catherine Carbone Rogers, spokeswoman for Mothers & More, an organization for women who have altered their career path to care for children at home. “Women are exercising their options a little more.”

“In a competitive labor market … there’s a little more of a mentality of ‘doing what’s best for me,’ not ‘what society expects of me,’” Carbone Rogers said.

Education, Income Are Factors

But the tendency to return to work has a lot to do with a mother’s educational background and the family’s income, Bachu said. For instance, of the women who gave birth in the previous year:

Of those with at least one year of college, about two-thirds, 68 percent, went back to work, compared with 58 percent of those who were high school graduates and 38 percent of those lacking high school diplomas.

Two-thirds with a family income of more than $75,000 returned to the labor force, compared with three-fifths with a family income of $20,000-$24,999 and half with a family income of $10,000-$19,999.

The Census findings highlight the importance of improving child care options for working parents, said Judy Applebaum, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center.

“It’s just a continuation of trends that we’ve seen,” Applebaum said. “Both parents need to support the family and that produces this crunch for child care that we in this country need to respond to.”

Child-care Just One Dilemma

Initiatives such as an emergency nanny service and letting employees work up to three days from home are important in retaining all types of workers, said Evelyne Steward, vice president for work-life initiatives at Discovery Communications, Inc. in Bethesda, Md.

“From a bottom-line perspective, we believe it will help attract good workers and top talent,” Steward said.

Some mothers looking to go back to work face more dilemmas than just child care, said Carbone Rogers of Mothers & More.

“Even when flexible options are offered, some mothers turn it down because it may mean you are marginalized at work. It may mean they are going to be denied promotion,” she said. “They feel like they can’t make those career trade-offs.”

Sheryl Alcock of Clayton, Calif., quit her job as a preschool teacher after the first of her two children was born 4½ years ago. She plans to return to work eventually but right now wants to concentrate on raising her son and 14-month-old daughter.

“It’s understandable that people have to go to work, but it’s fine if you’re also a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “I’m fortunate I can do it, and if I couldn’t I’d be working outside the home, too.”