Lynn Bradshaw, 40, feels she has the best of both worlds. When her kids are home—ages 11, 13 and 19—she’s a full-time mother, catering to their needs. When they’re gone, she’s the intrepid co-owner of a direct-mail business, rubbing elbows with managers for the company she started with a friend that is now flourishing. All told, she works around 20-30 hours a week.
“It’s truly awesome to use my college degree and still be able to have the flexibility and time during the day to do things with my kids,” she says.“My goal is for them to never feel they’re being rushed out the door.”
Bradshaw is living a dream evidently shared by many women, according to a new study out of the Pew Research Center. Based on a nationally-representative sample of 414 mothers across the nation, a whopping 60% of employed mothers see part-time work as the ideal, a new majority that points to a possible sea change in the culture.
The proportion of mothers who preferred part-time work over full-time jumped 12 percentage points since 1997.
But it’s a yearning unrequited for many. Perhaps because two incomes are required to keep many households afloat, only one in four employed mothers—24%—actually hold part-time jobs, a number that hasn’t increased in the last decade. “Women aren’t about to quit their jobs because of this,” says Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center.
“It’s more an expression of the difficulties in combining work and child-raising responsibilities in today’s world.”
The study showed the desire for part-time workseemed particularly strong for women with younger children, a reflection perhaps of the time-intensive nature of caring for little ones. Some experts also think a generational element plays a role.
“We found a difference between Gen X mothers and fathers and boomer mothers and fathers,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, which found similar results in its own survey.
“The Gen X generation is more family-centric. This generation grew up with working mothers and they watched them trying to manage stress and long hours.”
Gen X also has lived through 9/11, she observes, and the downsizing trend in business. “So their feelings about work are different,” she says. “They’ve seen people givetheir all to employers and not have them give back. They’re also used to working more flexibly because of technology. Technology is not a tool for younger people. It’s the oxygen they breathe.”
Gen Xer Vicki Williams, 25 and an engineer, didn’t think twice about going up to her employer for part-time work when she tired of “missing out on everything” when it came to raising her daughter, now two years old.
She got her wish and is being paid her full-time rate of $48 (about Rs2,000) an hour to work 24 hours a week. “I think it’s because I had worked full time for them and showed them that I do a good job,” says Williams, married to a law student who uses student loans to help keep the family afloat.
Deborah Collin Stephens, author of This Is Not the Life I Ordered, says the new yearning for part-time work among working mothers signals a retreat from the “have it all” dreams of the 1970s and 1980s, especially in today’s world, where a full-time job often translates into 50 hours a week or more.
“Women are realizing that children aren’t just projects that you can go back to at certain moments,” she says. “Children are a one-time shot.”