Still Life with Child

Who’s going to care for the baby?

Now that baby is at home, he or she needs to be taken care of. Parents are usually on the front lines of child care, but for some of the time they’re bound to let someone else take over. Fathers can let mothers do the job or mothers can let fathers; relatives, nannies, babysitters, day-care workers, and teachers can be employed. The child can be an all-consuming first priority for at least one parent, or a parent can try to achieve some sort of balance between work and family. What should we think of the choice to put the child first, and to suspend, to the extent that it’s feasible, whatever obligations may conflict with providing child care? If it’s economically viable for you to stop or reduce work to care for your children, should you?

This is no idle question, as research shows that children do affect many parents’ work-related decisions. Women without children participate in the workforce at a rate of about 80 percent, while mothers participate at a rate of about 70 percent. Fathers, in contrast, work more when they have children—86 percent of childless men work, compared to 94.6 percent of fathers. This doesn’t mean there are no fathers at home with children; in fact,

3.5 percent of stay-at-home parents are fathers. But for the most part, parenthood pushes fathers to work more and mothers to work less. Stay-at-home parents are mostly mothers, and are also mostly married mothers. Stay-at-home mothers who are single (about 20 percent) tend to have distinctive motivations for staying at home with their children. Twice as many single mothers, compared to married mothers, have reasons for being at home other than caregiving; for example, they may be ill or disabled, unable to find work, or in school.

Despite all the media hype about professional women who "opt out” of the workforce, it shouldn’t be assumed that staying home is only a privileged woman’s option. In fact, only a small minority of stay-at-home mothers are affluent and highly educated (5 percent of married stay-at-home mothers with working husbands have a household income over $75,000 a year and an advanced degree). Leaving work is a choice made by parents at both ends of the economic spectrum. In a 2005 study, mothers with mid-earning husbands participated in the labor force more than mothers with either high- or low-earning husbands. At the low end of the economic spectrum, a second paycheck may not seem worth it, considering the high cost of childcare.

However a mother winds up at home with her new baby (and it is usually the mother), many people will judge her favorably. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey showed that 60 percent of people in the United States think children are better off with a parent at home. Others make just the opposite judgment—that it’s disappointing when women leave the workplace. The philosophical parent will want to think through all the "shoulds” and "shouldn’ts” in this realm, deciding which to take seriously and which to ignore.

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