New research identifies four common patterns of mothers’ work in the U.S.

Most studies of mothers’ employment have focused on married, college-educated mothers and taken a short-term view of their employment status. New research involving a broader spectrum of mothers and a longer-term view shows considerable variability in how U.S. women balance motherhood and work. 

In a recent Upjohn Institute working paper, Harvard sociologists Alexandra Killewald and Xiaolin Zhuo examine a broad cross-section of U.S. mothers and analyze their employment patterns over the 18 years after the birth of their first child. Their analysis relies on National Longitudinal Survey data that tracks a group of more than 12,000 young men and women who were between the ages of 14 and 22 in 1979. They found that mothers’ work trajectories over the long haul generally fell into one of four different patterns.

The majority of these women generally followed one of four steady employment patterns: 1) continuous full-time employment (38 percent), 2) continuous non-employment (24 percent), 3) continuous part-time employment (20 percent), or 4) those who left the workforce for the early years of their first child’s life, then returned to work (18 percent).

After becoming mothers, more economically advantaged women were more likely to be consistently employed, either full-time or part-time.  Consistent part-time work is a labor pattern distinctive to white women (92 percent of consistent part-time workers were white, compared to 80 percent of the overall sample).

Meanwhile, women who consistently stayed out of the work force were more likely to lack a high school degree (14 percent in this group vs. 6 percent in the overall sample). And women who took a long break before returning to work tended to be younger, with lower wages prior to motherhood.

This research shows that stay-at-home mothers are a more diverse group than the popular characterization of women with affluent husbands who can “afford to stay home.”  It also suggests that efforts to increase maternal employment will need to look beyond new mothers and college-educated mothers and consider the needs of women across both the economic distribution and the life course.

Read Mothers' Long-Term Employment Patterns, by Alexandra Killewald and Xiaolin Zhuo.

Research Topics: Employment Relationships