Data show how American mothers balance work and family

Almost 70% of American mothers with children under 18 work for pay.

But motherhood remains disruptive for many women’s work lives. American women earn almost 20% less per hour than their male peers, in part because women disproportionately take responsibility for raising children. Mothers often experience employment interruptions or reductions in work hours.

When it comes to understanding mothers’ long-term employment patterns, researchers know less. How common is it for mothers to persist working full-time throughout their child-rearing years? Which mothers are most likely to be absent from the labor market over the long term? What do employment patterns look like for mothers who fall in between these two extremes?

In a study published in February, we set out to answer such questions. Our research shows that American mothers combine work and family in diverse ways, depending upon their preferences for work, their ability to maintain employment and their need to provide financially for their families.

What employment patterns do mothers follow?

Using national survey data, we looked at common employment patterns for over 3,000 American mothers currently in their mid-50s to early 60s. For these older women, we examined their prime child-rearing years, from the birth of their first child to when that child turned 18.

Motherhood frequently disrupts employment. A year before the birth of their first child, about half of the women in our sample were employed full-time. By the time of the birth, only 20% were. Disruptions are not limited to new mothers: It takes over a decade for mothers’ full-time employment rate to return to 50%.

Using statistical methods, we identified five common patterns of maternal employment over the first 18 years after a first birth. At one extreme, nearly two-fifths of mothers followed a pattern of steady full-time employment. At the other extreme, one-fifth of mothers were almost completely disconnected from employment.

The remaining three groups of mothers – each about 15% of our sample – cannot be easily classified as long-term “career moms” or “stay-at-home moms.”

Two groups spend time out of the labor market while their children are young, then enter employment and ultimately start working full-time. They differ in their typical timing of transition to paid work. One group begins roughly when the first child is entering kindergarten, while the other doesn’t enter full-time work until approximately when the first child is entering junior high.

The last group follows a pattern of consistent part-time work. Like the mothers in the full-time group, they work consistently, but at fewer average hours per week.