Even among married female breadwinners, higher paychecks don’t account for all of the growth. Many have fallen into their role by circumstance, not by choice. The recent economic downturn forced some women back into the workforce, and huge job cuts in high-paying, mostly male fields like manufacturing and construction sectors made some working women - even those in mid-paying fields - the primary breadwinners by default. It’s not necessarily the case that their income has increased but often that their spouses’ has decreased (or disappeared altogether).
I've written extensively about how women simply cannot afford to choose to be financially dependent on a man. No one plans for divorce, disability, death or unemployment, and the current economy is forcing many families to face the fact that there is significantly more financial security when both parents nurture their careers and bolster their earning potential. But attitudes about working mothers are out of whack with this new reality.
Many families depend on a woman’s paycheck (and demographers expect the number to continue growing), and 65 percent of married mothers work outside the home. Yet more than half of Americans still say they believe that children are better off if the mother is at home, according to the Pew survey. Despite the increasing reliance on women’s paychecks to support the family, nearly three-quarters of adults surveyed by Pew say that when women work outside the home, it makes it more difficult for parents to raise children, and half say it makes it harder for marriages to succeed.
As a society we suffer from a working-mother complex: we feel guilty when women work outside of the home, yet economic realities say that we must. Meanwhile, there is a sorry lack of public resources to support these very realities—child care is prohibitively expensive, school hours do not jibe with work hours, most jobs offer little flexibility for working parents and on and on. No wonder we say that it is tough when moms work – especially when the mom is the only parent.
Changing these perceptions (and the very real challenges that shape them) -- and closing the wage gap between married and single moms -- will require a shift in public opinion and public policies. But it’s possible. In fact, it’s already taken place in most other industrialized nations, which seem to have a better understanding of what it takes to raise a child as a working parent (or, even, as one of two working parents): a regulated and subsidized child-care system, affordable health care, and laws that encourage family-friendly work policies that make earning a living and raising children not only possible, but productive.
But none of these institutionalized changes will come until we embrace and celebrate our roles as working moms – whether we are the primary or secondary breadwinner, married or single. Only then will we have the confidence to demand policies that make it easier for both parents to work.
Emma Johnson is a freelance business writer in New York City. She blogs at WealthySingleMommy.com.