Published Sunday, June 9, 2013

In 40 percent of all households as of 2011, according to a new release from Pew Social Trends, the mother was either the sole or primary source of family income – the breadwinner. That’s up from 11 percent in 1960. A total of 5.1 million of those breadwinners (37 percent) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers. Is there a social consensus to be found by lumping together those disparate groups?

Only if you equate single parents’ work and career choices (presumably necessary for all but the independently wealthy) with the perpetual middle- and upper-middle-class opt-in/opt-out “should mothers work” debate. Pew does:

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that the public remains of two minds about the gains mothers have made in the workplace – most recognize the clear economic benefits to families, but many voice concerns about the toll that having a working mother may take on children or even marriage. About three-quarters of adults (74 percent) say the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children, and half say it has made marriages harder to succeed. At the same time, two-thirds say it has made it easier for families to live comfortably.

While the vast majority of Americans (79 percent) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children. About half (51 percent) of survey respondents say children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8 percent say the same about a father.

I’d be interested to see a survey of the nearly half (49 percent) of never-married single mothers with a high school education or less and a median family income of $17,400 in 2011 (the lowest among all families with children) asking about the “gains” they have made in the work force. Certainly more jobs are open to women than in 1960, and more single mothers hold some of those jobs, but to be a single parent is to be, of necessity, the breadwinner.

To equate the forces that push the low-income single mother in and out of the work force with the survey-imposed suggestion that children could be “better off ” with their mothers at home – assuming, presumably, that food and shelter are still available to those children – requires a somewhat bewildering conjugation of two distinct trends. The baffling insistence that we lump working mothers into a single category upon which survey respondents are expected to opine renders the resulting numbers of little more than academic interest.

To their credit, some 13 percent of people responding to the question of whether young children are better off with their mothers at home or just as well off if their mothers work apparently volunteered the caveat that it depends on the circumstances. Might it depend on whether there is a father picking up the caregiver role, or whether a mother’s leaving work would leave the family wholly dependent on entitlement programs?

Americans may remain ambivalent about working mothers when who that mother is, and what her alternative to working might be, is left to our “Leave It to Beaver”-fueled imaginations, but national and state policy choices make it clear that we’re not at all ambivalent about what low-income single mothers should do after the birth of a child.

For the single mother for whom unpaid family leave would mean 12 weeks without making the rent, it’s back to work as soon as possible unless her employer policy (or her state) goes beyond the federal mandate. For those breadwinners, opting out is not an option.

That’s consistent with our particularly American “every man for himself ” system of raising children.

We like to proffer the socially acceptable-sounding belief that adults should wait until they are financially able to support children to have them, and yet we persist in maintaining a system that makes it extraordinarily difficult for many people to reach that state, particularly those born into the kind of poverty that makes complete economic independence difficult to achieve and precarious to maintain.

Meanwhile, we often punish the children born to such feckless adults with the kind of inadequate schooling and catch-as-catch-can support systems that leave them struggling to imagine an alternative to what the singer Kacey Musgraves has so aptly dubbed the “broken merry-go-round.”

Survey respondents may claim to believe that young children are “better off ” if a mother stays home, but all the available external evidence suggests we are eager to qualify that.

All breadwinner mothers – all working parents – would benefit from ending our societal assumption that children have a parent available at home. Having a single conversation about whether “women working for pay makes it harder for parents to raise children” assumes choices that many women don’t have.

What do Americans really think about the breadwinner mother? The best answer is the one outside the survey box: it depends.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at: kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com