It’s Time to End Working Mom Guilt

Family structures and roles are changing. Why haven’t public policies and opinions caught up?

I’m not gonna lie. I love it when single moms get attention. Whether I spot a sister-in-arms at the playground, read about us in The New York Times, or see one as the heroine of a Hollywood movie, I feel a sense of proud kinship with other women raising kids alone. So when I came across this week’s news proclaiming that moms are the primary breadwinners for an astonishing 40% of U.S. households, my heart went aflutter. Go, ladies! That’s us they’re talking about!! Great to know I’ve got lots of company! Whazaaa?!

The realities of this Pew Research Center statistic are complicated though. There's a lot to cheer about, of course. But the data accompanying the statistic also reveals a startling lag in support for the growing number of working women -- both in public policy and public opinion.

On the one hand, the near quadrupling in the percentage of female breadwinners over the last half-century reflects lots of fabulous trends. Women’s pay is inching up on men’s (albeit slowly and only in some occupations). We constitute the majority of college and graduate school students -- and are even earning more doctoral degrees. And as women’s earning power grows, so do our options for starting families. Parents are also adjusting their family roles as more women work, with men taking on more child-rearing responsibilities and increasing numbers becoming stay-at-home dads. This is great news on the gender-equality front, and I give all my pioneering sisters (and our supportive male cohorts) a big high-five for the significant progress we’ve made over the past century.

It’s thrilling to be part of a generation of women benefiting from the fruits of my marching foremothers who helped set the stage for our professional success, and to create the myriad choices we enjoy when it comes to family. I’m grateful each day that I can own my own business, work from home and earn enough to support a family while being actively involved in raising my two preschoolers as a single mother.

Yet it’s clear, when you look closely at the Pew data, that there’s work to be done. Just 37% of the female breadwinners are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, according to the report. The rest, nearly two-thirds, are single moms. Sure, some of them are like me -- well-educated, upper-middle class women who can afford to raise children without a spouse, even if it is not always easy. But the majority are not. There’s a harsh disparity in pay between single and married female breadwinners, with married moms earning a median income of $50,000 and single mothers bringing in just $20,000 a year on average. That’s the federal poverty level for a household of three.

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Tagged in: Emma Johnson