By the numbers: Women to Watch spotlight on mothers and the workplace

Two generations ago, the average American mother wasn’t in the labor force and had her first child in her early 20s. Today, mothers are more than twice as likely to be working or looking for work than not. And their careers are one of the reasons they tend to be closer to 30 when they first give birth. But moms remain far likelier than dads to stay home, a move that can affect pay and prospects the rest of their working lives. Limited access to paid leave and affordable child care further complicates the work-family balance.

Moms are having their first child six years later than they did half a century ago.

Declines in teen births and greater access to contraception have contributed to a steady increase in the average age of first-time mothers since the government started tracking it in 1970. Delays in marriage and increases in women’s educational attainment and labor force participation have also contributed, as did the economic disruption of the Great Recession. Preliminary data from the first year of the pandemic shows that births were also down in 2020.

While careers are one of the reasons women are delaying motherhood, moms are still far less likely than dads to be working or looking for work, especially early in their children’s lives.

Less than 50 years ago, most U.S. mothers did not participate in the labor force. That changed rapidly from the mid-70s through the mid-90s, when the rate eclipsed 70%, about what it is today. Women’s overall participation in the workforce has followed a similar trajectory, though becoming a mother can change the course of a worker’s career. According to data compiled by the Maryland Family Network, more than 1 in 10 Maryland women with children under 6 can expect to drop back from full-time to part-time, almost three times the rate as men, and child care issues lead a quarter of all working parents of young children forgo additional education.

Unlike in more than three dozen similarly oriented countries, U.S. mothers have no national right to paid time off with their children.

In the U.S. civilian workforce, only about one in five workers has access to paid family leave, while about nine in 10 gets unpaid leave, which the federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires from public employers and from private employers if they have at least 50 workers. Workers get FMLA if they’ve been with their employer for at least a year and work the equivalent of at least 7 full-time months over the course of year, which lessens access among part-time workers and workers in higher turnover positions.

But paid family leave is gaining traction at the state level. Eight states plus the District now have mandates.

In the absence of a national law, more and more states are passing their own paid family leave requirements, mostly in the northeast and on the West Coast. Marylanders who work in Washington, D.C., can get up to eight weeks of paid parental leave under the District’s law, which took effect last year. Maryland itself considered a law in the state legislature this year but it stalled in committee.

If mothers need child care in order to work, the cost can significantly cut into their earnings. For millions of Marylanders, it would be one of their families’ top two expenses.

In most of Maryland, families earning their county’s median income who pay for child care can expect it to be one of their two biggest expenses, consuming more than one of out every five dollars they make, according to an analysis by the Maryland Family Network. The nonprofit based their calculation on the average cost of sending an infant to an in-home daycare and a preschooler to a child care center in a family’s home jurisdiction.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this story.

Steve Earley

Steve Earley

Overseeing the newsroom's audience engagement and data/interactives teams, Steve uses technology to engage and grow The Sun's audience and to support and advance its journalism. An avid foodie and runner, the Columbia native graduated from Elon University's inaugural Interactive Media master's class in 2010.