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WORKING MOMS: 5 MYTHS

By Naomi Cahn and June Carbone - Special to the Washington Post

Nearly two-thirds of women with children under age 18 now have jobs outside the home - more than three times the rate in 1960. But while the numbers have shifted rapidly, many of our beliefs about juggling work and family haven't quite caught up. Five myths that seemingly won't die:

1Mothers today spend much less time caring for children than did their parents and grandparents. Today's mothers and fathers both devote more time than ever to their children, in part because they are less likely than parents in earlier eras to send their kids out to play on their own or to put them to work inside or outside the home. According to a 2006 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, fathers in 1965 spent a little more than one hour per week on child care - meaning hands-on tending such as feeding, reading aloud, helping with homework, changing diapers or rocking to sleep - compared with more than three hours per week in 2003. Meanwhile, working mothers, who spent just under three hours per week on child care in 1965, had nearly doubled that number by 2003. In the same period, the time households spent on housework, including cooking and indoor chores such as cleaning and laundry, plummeted by 6.4 hours per week.

2Women's jobs interfere with family life more than men's. If anything, it is men's work that gets in the way. According to Penn State sociologist Paul Amato, approximately 45 percent of husbands in a nationally representative survey conducted in 2000 thought their job interfered with family life; about 35 percent of working wives felt that way about their own employment. This was a big shift from 1980, when about 23 percent of both husbands and wives thought that their own jobs interfered with family life. Part of this change may be because fathers today expect to be more involved in family life than they did a few decades ago.

3Mothers with college degrees are more likely than other women to opt out of the work force. Despite media reports several years ago heralding an "opt-out" revolution among college-educated women, such women are not abandoning the workplace. In a 2005 paper, economist Heather Boushey reported that the "child penalty" - the extent to which having a child decreases a woman's odds of having a job - is greater for women with less education. According to 2007 Census Bureau data, only 26 percent of mothers with a college degree stay home, while more than 40 percent of mothers lacking high school diplomas stay home. College-educated women are more successful in combining work and family than other groups in part because they tend to have the resources to pay for child care and other help.

4Women who work are less likely to have successful marriages. It depends. A couple's values are better predictors of a stable marriage than whether the wife works. In particular, Penn State's Amato finds that egalitarian attitudes (seen in shared decisionmaking, chores and child care) are linked to higher levels of marital well-being. Amato says the happiest couples are upper-middle-class, two-career couples. They report three times the marital contentment of the next happiest group - working- and middle-class families who favor a traditional division of labor and have only one breadwinner.

Which families are the least happy? Young, dual-wage, working-class couples - particularly those who think the husband should be the breadwinner but who both work out of financial necessity - have the highest levels of conflict and are three times more divorce-prone than any other group.

5Parents don't experience discrimination in the workplace. This is half-true: Fathers may receive more money and better job prospects compared with childless men, but the "motherhood penalty" is alive. Sociologist Shelley Correll and colleagues sent out more than 1,200 fake resumes to employers in a large Northeastern city; mothers were significantly less likely to get interviews than childless women or fathers with the same qualifications.

Fathers don't always get off free, though: According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers who provide family leave sometimes deny men the same time off they give women, even though it's illegal to do so.

Speaking of time off, while the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows eligible workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child or a family member with a serious medical condition, only slightly more than half of all employees work in businesses covered by the law, according to a Labor Department estimate published in 2000.

Naomi Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University; June Carbone is a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

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