A sweeping study of American fertility habits has found more than half of new mothers are going back to work before their infants can walk, a significant change from just a generation ago, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.
The study found that full-time, stay-at-home moms are no longer the majority in America, with 55 percent of new mothers returning to the labor force in 1995 within 12 months of giving birth. In 1976, when the Census Bureau first began to track the trend, the comparable figure was only 31 percent.
The older and more educated the mother, the more likely she is to return to work before her baby turns 1, with a soaring 77 percent of college-educated women 30 to 44 years old deciding to juggle motherhood and an outside job, the study showed.
“Here you have a group of women who postponed children, got an education, went to work after college and probably have been fairly successful moving up in terms of income and satisfaction. It’s hard to walk away from that,” said Suzanne Bianchi, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.
While the figures do not indicate whether women are returning to their jobs full time, it does portray a nation of mothers who have spent the last 20 years deciding to go back to work in steadily increasing numbers before their babies toddle.
“These women are more likely to be in professional positions and probably have the ability to afford child care they are confident about. They don’t want to lose their ability to move up. They also probably have more interesting work and that draws them back,” said Christine Winquist Nord, senior study director at Westat, a Washington, D.C., research organization that studies families.
The findings also reflect the increasing reliance of many households on two paychecks, as well as the growing rate of single motherhood, experts noted.
The census report, “Fertility of American Women: June 1995,” surveyed nearly 57,000 households across the United States and found the American birthrate in general is up substantially over the last 20 years. While 56 babies were born for every thousand women in 1976, the figure had jumped to 84 babies in 1995.
Demographers attributed the rise to the influx of immigrants who lean toward larger families - particularly Mexican-born women, who have an average of two children each.
But the study also showed that once here, Mexican-born women began to mirror the birth rate of women born in the United States, dropping to 1.2 babies each, the national average.
All told, the study reflected increases in an array of child-bearing choices, suggesting women are choosing varied paths to suit their lifestyles rather than the confines of strict societal rules.
For instance, a continued increase in the so-called “Murphy Brown” syndrome was recorded, with a steadily growing number of never-married, older mothers opting to have a child. In the 1995 study, 21 percent of such women were mothers, up from 18 percent in 1990 (the first year for which the statistic was available).
At the same time, more women were feeling free to decide to remain childless, an option once frowned upon in American culture. While just 10 percent of women between 40 and 44 years old were without children in 1976, 18 percent had made that decision in 1995.
Among those mothers most disposed to working, the birth of a second child increased the incentive to stay home, according to the report. While more than threequarters of the older, college-educated mothers returned to their jobs after the first child, only 56 percent went back after the second baby came along.
Experts said today’s women are bucking the lifestyles they grew up with and doing it in a society not at all sure that motherhood and professional work mix.
“Society is also dealing with the image - if it was ever true - of the ideal family where women knew they were supposed to stay home and provide for the children and men knew they were the bread winners. And that really has changed for lots of reasons.”