Jan 1 2001

For Love or Money?

Economics takes a backseat in network reports about working mothers

Mothers work because they’re selfish. That’s the conclusion viewers might have drawn after watching ABC and NBC news broadcasts about a recently released Census Bureau report (“Fertility of American Women,” 9/00) that showed that more mothers, especially mothers of infants, were in the work force in 1998 than ever before (73 percent and 59 percent, respectively).

The labor force participation of mothers has risen steadily since the Census Bureau began collecting data on the topic in 1976, so it is not particularly surprising that more women with infants are on the job today than in years past. Perhaps more noteworthy is the finding that for the first time, dual-income families with children made up the majority of married couples in 1998. “The traditional family, portrayed as one with an employed husband whose wife stayed home to look after the children, has changed to a family with both parents employed outside the home and with children cared for by someone other than a family member,” the Bureau reported.

While some newspapers offered nuanced reports based on this data (e.g., Christian Science Monitor; Raleigh, N.C. News and Observer, both 10/24/00), the two network news programs that covered the report–NBC Nightly News and ABC World News Tonight (both 10/24/00)–were generally uninterested in the emergence of dual-income parents. Instead, they used the Census data as an opportunity to present almost carbon-copy stories about the reasons why professional women are sprinting from maternity ward to office. (Needless to say, neither network was curious about the motivations of working fathers.)

NBC‘s Robert Hager concentrated on those data he saw as “representing moms like Lori Rubin,” a financial services professional with two children who divides her time between home and office in order to “have my cake and eat it, too.” Hager described another professional woman, Stacy Sweeney, as a mother “whose son was just a month old when she went back.” It’s not about paychecks, a source told NBC; women “want to have it all.”

Similarly, ABC dispatched reporter Jackie Judd to interview Shelleye Warner, a college-educated professional who returned to an analyst job “just six weeks” after the birth of her daughter. “It never occurred to Warner to derail her career,” Judd said, calling her “typical of so many mothers returning to work.”

In fact, none of the women interviewed by either network seemed to be very typical–each seemed to have a professional career that would place them well above the average female worker on the pay scale. This limited the news shows’ ability to explore the logistical difficulties parents of both genders face as they attempt to comply with the ever-more intrusive demands of a new economy in which wages are largely stagnant and overtime is often a matter of course.

Instead, both networks treated viewers to a salute to corporate America: “The best thing happening in the workplace for many young mothers is the willingness of companies which in this boom economy are showing more flexibility to meet the needs of their employees,” ABC‘s Judd enthused. NBC also provided an image of a benevolent economy with employers bending over backwards to accommodate moms with job shares and telecommuting opportunities.

By focusing on women from upper income brackets, the networks could also stress the psychological motivations for work. NBC‘s Hager reported: “Experts also sense a fundamental shift in what motivates young mothers to return to work. They say it used to be almost always for financial reasons. They needed the money. Now, often, they have enough money, but choose to work for other reasons.” ABC stuck to the same script, saying that women work “because the role of a mother is now so much more broadly defined.”

Not Quite Having it All

Of course, many mothers, like many fathers, do derive satisfaction from their jobs. But regardless of their feelings, few married (and fewer single) women in today’s economy can base decisions about whether to work or become full-time moms primarily on their own desires; that luxury, never widely available, has become as obsolete as Ozzie and Harriet. “Having it all” no longer refers simply to middle-class women’s reluctance to choose between kids and a career: In practical terms, it can also refer to families’ efforts to ensure economic stability at a time when the costs of college, health insurance, childcare and home ownership have skyrocketed.

Had the networks looked, they would have found a wide array of data to add substance to their examinations of why so many mothers work. “Two Careers, One Marriage,” a 1998 study by the research firm Catalyst, found that of approximately 800 members of dual-income families, 84 percent of women cited increased income as a primary benefit they reap from a two-career marriage. Only 29 percent of women surveyed named more psychological benefits, such as personal fulfillment or intellectual equality, as a major job perk (although well over half said they would work with or without financial need).

When Catalyst asked husbands the same question about the benefits of work, men mirrored women’s responses within 1 percentage point. One survey area where husbands and wives diverged is telling: Mothers were 20 percent more likely than fathers to “scale back career goals” and “step off the fast track at work.”

In showcasing only well-off professional moms who claim to work for fulfillment as much as finances, the networks ignored the economic realities of a huge percentage of mothers and families. About half of all women who work full-time earn less than $25,000 annually, and 7 million women scrape by on the minimum wage (In These Times, 11/28/99). Certainly many women, especially those whose jobs entail a certain level of intellectual challenge and professional success, find independence and personal gratification in their careers. However, it is unlikely that many mothers in low-wage jobs, rarely benefiting from the health care and family-friendly benefits some of their sisters in corporate America receive, work outside the home simply for the love of it.

Even for families that are not low-income, a second income often makes the difference between a family’s financial growth and stagnation or worse. As research from the Economic Policy Institute illustrates, men’s real wages have fallen since the 1970s as women’s hourly wages have risen, making wives’ added salaries increasingly important to family incomes over time (The State of Working America 2000-2001). According to EPI, middle-income families who saw their income rise by 13.5 percent between 1979 and 1998 would have seen their income drop by 0.7 percent without the addition of wives’ wages.

Strained Superwomen

Rather than exploring this socioeconomic data, the networks chose to replay the tired template story about how, as a source told ABC, working mothers often “feel like a juggler” when they attempt to balance the competing demands of their families and their employers.

News media have long been fond of features that focus on the difficulties working mothers face when they try to “have it all”; tales of strained Superwomen can serve to reinforce the underlying notion that unlike fatherhood, motherhood and work outside the home are naturally in conflict. Media have been less likely to dig beneath the surface symptoms of women’s workplace problems–for example, working mothers’ stress levels–to the root causes of such problems.

But these root causes shouldn’t be hard for journalists to discern. It is no secret that working parents are increasingly strapped for time; according to EPI, married workers with children labored an average of 354 more hours per year in 1998 than they did in 1979. This time crunch is particularly hard on women, since childcare arrangements tend to be handled more often by mothers even when married partners both work (Christian Science Monitor, 10/24/00).

Media never question why fathers want careers, and rarely if ever imply that their presence in the workplace is bad for their children. Yet for years, media outlets have often promulgated the regressive notion that working mothers who leave their children in childcare services are abandoning their kids in order to pursue their own interests. By taking data about working mothers out of economic context, by profiling primarily white-collar professionals, and by focusing on the ages of women’s babies when they returned to work (“just a month old”!), ABC and NBC‘s Census reports continued a subtle bashing of working moms as maternally lacking. Whether mothers work out of financial necessity, personal desire or a combination of the two, they deserve better.