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Report card for working mothers gives a good grade

October 15, 1998|By Jo Ellen Barnhart

The American family is alive and well, thanks largely to the efforts of American mothers. That's the finding of a three-year study commissioned by Whirlpool Foundation.

Shew! What a relief to find this statement. Evidence fed to us by the growing number of media outlets seems to illustrate an American family that lacks connection, values and love. Stories of gang violence, child abuse and drug addiction seem to suck up a lot of air time and newsprint. Norman Rockwell paintings of Americana serve as Smithsonian reminders of an era of alleged perfect parenting. But alas, there is evidence that American families are thriving.

In 1995, Whirlpool Foundation set out to examine how American women are faring as parents in their combined role as both nurturer and bread winner. The three-phase study, which ended in 1997, clearly notes the change in the financial role of American mothers over the last 30 years.

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Yes, we are working more and more of us are working. According to Whirlpool Foundation Report Card on the New Providers: Kids and Moms Speak, in 1970, 39.4 percent of mothers with children younger than 18 were employed. Only 6.5 percent were single mothers. The new demographic reality of American mothers, according to 1997 Census data, is that 67.7 percent of mothers with children younger than 18 are now in the work force and 18.1 percent are single working mothers.

The study cites that working mothers contribute more than half (57 percent) on average to the total household income. Most of our wages pay for basic household living expenses and the rest provide a better quality of life such as college education, better home or retirement funds - for American families.

What about the children?

What is the answer to the often-asked question "Who's taking care of America's children?" Children participating in the Whirlpool study resoundingly responded that American mothers, whether employed or not, take care of their children in every way. American moms do not appear to abandon the care-giving role when they become paid workers.

Children report that mothers handle the bulk of responsibilities with their physical care like doctor's appointments and chauffeuring to swim lessons, preparing them for school and helping with homework. Mothers also have the lion's share of housekeeping. Fathers' provide some occasional help.

The "Report Card" says mothers appear to be the primary "teachers," conveying moral lessons, like "be honest," as well as practical life skills, like "stay away from strangers." We are the primary emotional caregiver - the one children turn to during emotional crises or to share good news. Fathers also are cited as a source of emotional support, but not to the same degree as mothers.

Women's lives may have changed over the last three decades, but their focus on their children's care remains constant. Ninety-two percent of working moms responding to the "Report Card" study state their primary motivation for working outside the home is linked to providing better opportunities for their children. The vast majority of full-time mothers cite the desire to remain very involved in their children's education as the main reason for staying home.

Whether for themselves or their children, mothers connect education to a secure financial future. The No. 1 advice from today's mom is "get a good education."

The findings from the Whirlpool study call for an end to the debate about whether women should or shouldn't work. Working mothers are here to stay, and a goal for this country is to support women and men in their new roles - especially in providing access to more diverse work patterns and less-than-full-time work with decent pay and pro-rated benefits.




Jo Ellen Barnhart is the working mother of three young boys. She teaches at Frostburg State University and Hagerstown Community College and consults in public relations and marketing. Write to her in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown,Md. 21741.

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