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In a switch, more moms opt to stay home with kids

Megan Mocik never envisioned herself as a stay-at-home mother.

After having twins four years ago, the former marketing manager for New York-based International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. was determined to press on with a career, even one that came with lengthy commutes and long workdays. But getting back into the workforce proved difficult and came with unappealing trade-offs.

The Bel Air woman chose a path taken by more mothers today, choosing to stay home with the kids —reversing a decades-long trend.

"I didn't want to find a job that just would make enough money to put them in day care," said Mocik, who moved from New Jersey three years ago with her husband and then-infants. "You go through this thing of missing the everyday excitement of work and challenging myself and putting forth that creative effort, but at the same time, I love being able to be here with my girls and watch them develop and grow and reach all these milestones."

Those who stay home now make up close to a third of the nation's mothers, a share that slid to a modern-era low of 23 percent in 1999, research shows. Factors in the change range from a tight job market to the child-rearing attitudes of immigrants, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis, which bolstered similar findings from 2010. Like Mocik, more mothers are changing course after seeing a significant chunk of family earnings go to child care costs, which soared nearly 20 percent in the past decade, according to the advocacy group Child Care Aware.

The increase in stay-at-home moms reverses a trend that started in the mid-20th century as more women entered the workforce, acceptance of working moms grew and families shouldered rising expenses with double incomes.

"Overall since the late '60s, there's been a large, notable drop in the share of stay-at-home moms," said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at Pew. While the more recent increase is small in comparison, "It was still interesting to see that there was an increase at all."

Rising unemployment likely played a role in recent years, Pew found in the study, which was released in April, but the uptick in at-home moms occurred during non-recessionary times, too. Rising immigration contributed as well, with researchers finding that nearly three-quarters of Hispanics believe children are better off when a parent stays home, compared with 57 percent of both whites and African-Americans.

For many newer stay-at-home moms, the decision comes down to child care expenses — and seeking greater stability at home.

"One of the issues we come across a lot is the expense of child care," said Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, associate director of marketing at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, which studies work and family issues and helps corporations achieve flexible workplace practices. "The cost of child care has grown dramatically. Some moms are opting out of the workforce not because they don't want to work but they can't make ends meet even if they're working."

Amy Favinger, 33, a former teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville who is married to a software engineer, worked full time after her first two children, now 5 and 4, were born. But it was not easy.

"With both of us working, it felt like somebody was always sick or had a doctor's appointment," the Ellicott City resident recalled. "I couldn't be a 100 percent teacher and I couldn't be a 100 percent parent. I felt I was being mediocre at both and wanted to put my energy either into my own children or … into my classroom children."

As she prepared for the birth of their third child, now 2, she realized, "My teaching salary was going to the day care for two, and it didn't make any sense for three."

Favinger took a two-year "child rearing" leave from the Baltimore County school system, and now, expecting her fourth child in June, has applied for an additional two years of leave. She supplements the family income by tutoring in elementary school subjects and hasn't decided whether she will return to work.

"If I decide to go back it will be a big adjustment," she said. "We'll have to figure out the schedule and what works best. I just find that right now [staying home] works well. It allows my husband to stay at work longer or go in earlier."

Last year, Denise Tripp faced a similar dilemma.

She was working 30 hours a week teaching Spanish in Howard County public schools while her 2-year-old daughter was in day care up to 25 hours a week. The 42-year-old Ellicott City resident also has three school-age children from a previous marriage and a stepson, all of whom live with her and her husband. When they had a baby nine months ago, and Tripp's job increased to full time, she decided to stay home, figuring that even with a higher salary they'd lose money on the child care costs. Even part-time work had come to mean a home out of control, between appointments, kids' activities and work that she handled at night.

"We were crazy," Tripp said. "If the house is suffering and … there's no food, and the shampoo has all run out and no one's been to the dentist or the pediatrician, are we really gaining that much so we can afford a better vacation or have more clothes?"

About two-thirds of the nation's 10.4 million stay-at-home moms have working husbands and have chosen the child caretaker role, the Pew study found. But increasingly mothers are staying home because they can't find work or are disabled or attending school. Since 2000, the percentage of stay-at-home moms who couldn't find work jumped from 1 percent to 6 percent. Single mothers — who account for about 20 percent of at-home moms — were more likely than married moms to stay home because they couldn't find a job.

Mocik said she spent about a year looking for work before giving up. Her family took a financial hit — she and her husband earned similar salaries.

"We lost a big chunk of our income," said Mocik, who has an MBA and worked in middle management. "It forced us to not do the stuff we used to do. But we felt that was something we needed to do."

She's seen other mothers make similar choices.

"I think there's a change where we're putting more values on family and friends and relationships rather than on material things," she said. "In that sense, we'd rather spend that time with family and develop that bond."

Sara Phillips of Ellicott City had always planned to stay home after having kids. With a family in mind, she and her husband had experimented while she was still working as a crisis counselor and family therapist to see if they could live off his income alone.

After having her boys, now 8 and 2, "I think the hardest thing in the beginning was the isolation I felt," said Phillips, 34. "I didn't know other moms. I felt disconnected from the adult world."

When her son turned 1, she joined the Ellicott City Moms Club, a chapter of a nonprofit national support group of at-home moms that plans activities and service projects. She has realized it's often tough for moms to think about going back to work, even part time, once their kids have reached school age.

"When you've been a stay-at-home mom and are used to being available to your kids, it's difficult," Phillips said. "You want to be there before or after school. How would you do before-care, after-care, [school] vacations, holidays, when they're sick, things working moms think about. It's a hard spot to be in. And when you've been not working for 10 years … you go though the whole career decision again. You don't necessarily want to go back to what you were doing before and your lifestyle is different."

Pew researchers said they found little research comparing stay-at-home and working moms when they dug into a topic that has stirred debate over child rearing for years. While working mothers have gained greater acceptance — no surprise with 70 percent of mothers in the workforce — they found continued ambivalence about that issue. Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed felt kids are better of with one parent home with them.

A 2010 study by the U.S. Census Bureau also showed an increase in stay-at-home mothers starting in 1999, and it, too, noted the effects of rising immigration. In 2009, the last year covered by the research, stay-at-home moms were younger, less educated and more likely to be Hispanic than in 1969, the study by Rose M. Kreider and Diana B. Elliott showed. Contrary to a belief that highly educated professional women are leaving the workplace by choice, more often they're leaving after "reaching career impasses because of the struggles to have both a career and a family," the study said.

Frances Frost came to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea, as a child and earned a master's degree in operations management and a teaching certification. But the Silver Spring resident left the workforce when the first of her four children, a daughter, was born.

"I just decided I wanted to be her primary caregiver. I didn't want to put her in child care," said Frost, who was teaching high school business and finance before having her girls, ages 15, 13 and 9 and son, 11.

She calls the "stay-at-home" label a misnomer because, "I rarely do, between volunteer activities, household errands and chauffeuring the children around town. They all get home at 3 p.m. and we're pretty much off and running," to swimming, choir, basketball and tennis. "It's just being there for them. I can help them with homework. It's a little bit less stressful than if I were working."

Her role and schedule shifted as her children grew. With younger children, they stayed home and colored, went to Mommy and Me classes or took trips to the zoo. Now, with the kids in school — her youngest is a third-grader — she volunteers with the PTA and her sorority, and last year self-published a novel, "Life in Spades."

Even after her kids outgrew the need for child care, Columbia resident Jennifer Swickard Mallo stayed home with her three teenagers.

"Part of me would consider other avenues of employment, but I've spent now 17 years as my own boss, and the idea of returning to someone else's expectations as an employee would be very different," Mallo said. "As a former professional, I made this my profession and have had to approach it as a job, which can be unbelievably tedious at times. I had to find ways to enrich it for myself."

She has taken on numerous volunteer roles, heading the PTA, serving on preschool boards and directing cultural arts projects, activities "that rival many full-time jobs in little bits and spurts," she said.

As part of its research, Pew found at-home moms spent more of their time on child care and housework than those in the workforce. And they had only slightly more leisure time and sleep.

"Everyone feels, 'Oh you stay home, and it's so easy, and you have so much time to yourself.' And it's not," Mocik said. "Some days I think it would be easier if I did go to work. I'm constantly being pulled in 10 different directions."

Despite the reversal in long-term trends, experts don't expect a huge influx of stay-at-home mothers over the next few years. An earlier Pew report showed both working and stay-at-home moms believed working part-time would be ideal.

"All else being equal," Livingston said. "the share of mothers who are at-home is not likely to skyrocket in future years."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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