By Dugan Arnett
The Kansas City Star.
Leslie Cunningham always loved the bustle of a workday.
As a teacher at Blue Valley Montessori School, she thrived in her day-to-day dealings with a room full of prekindergarten children. She liked her co-workers, the relationships forged between them, getting to know her students’ families.
So when she became pregnant with her first child in 2010, Cunningham had no plans of giving up her job.”I always assumed I would continue working full time,” said Cunningham, who spent 10 years at the school. “I always felt bad for stay-at-home moms. I’m the kind of person who needs structure and the satisfaction of a really productive workday.”
Within a year after the birth of their first child, however, she and her husband decided to give up that second income — becoming part of the reversal in a long-term historical trend.
According to a Pew Research Center study released Tuesday, 29 percent of mothers did not work outside the home in 2012, a jump from the modern-era low of 23 percent in 1999.
A nearly 30-year trend until 2000 had seen more women, including mothers, entering the workplace.
“I think it’s striking that after many decades of rising participation in the workplace by mothers, now we’re seeing a bit of a turnaround,” said D’Vera Cohn, who served as an author of the report. “Since 2000, we’ve seen an increase in the number and share of mothers who are at home.
“And that not only has implications for the economy, but also for the day-to-day lives of the children.”
The economy is suspected as a major factor, as many women struggled to find employment even after a harsh recession eased.
Another factor is the rising cost of childcare. When Cunningham was weighing the decision to leave the workforce, she realized that day care costs would be a major factor.
“Every ounce of what I made would go to day care — just to house my children for the day,” she said.
The study, which included U.S. census and survey data, delves into some of the factors involved in the recent shift. The country’s recent economic struggles have certainly been a factor — 6 percent of mothers in 2012 said they weren’t working because of an inability to find jobs, up from 1 percent in 2000.
In the study, the stay-at-home-mother population includes single mothers, those who are disabled and those who are students, among others.
Cohn points out that mothers who are less well-off make up a significant portion of the group — not just the affluent mothers typically associated with stay-at-home motherhood. A third of stay-at-home moms are at the poverty level.
Additionally, the study found that 25 percent of stay-at-home mothers in 2012 had college degrees, up from 7 percent in 1970.
In Kansas City, stay-at-home mothers cite a number of reasons for their arrangement, from monetary to philosophical to a growing acceptance of a mother’s choice to be there for every moment of her child’s upbringing.
“In the past, women were expected to work outside the home and almost made to feel like less if we didn’t,” said Arika Ledom, a Johnson County mother of two who stays home to raise her kids. “Like raising our children wasn’t an important enough job on its own.”
Without question, childcare costs have also played a role.
Multiple mothers interviewed by The Star on Tuesday said that, after calculating expenses, they found that staying home with their children would actually be cheaper than continuing to work and funneling money into a pricey day care each month.
Even if there is a financial hit, meanwhile, many families have taken steps to alleviate the strain.
Some have moved into smaller homes to facilitate a single income. Others have made lifestyle changes, shopping at discount grocery stores or eating out less.
“We adjusted our budget, and it’s not that difficult,” said Mandi Pollard, an Independence mother of two whose husband works as a project manager for a heating and cooling company. “I don’t have to buy work clothes or gas as much. We eat at home a lot more.
“There are ways to balance it.”
The most common answer, though, is also the most obvious: They like being there to raise their children, even if it means living a bit more frugally.
Of the married mothers with working husbands included in the Pew study, 85 percent said they were not employed so that they could care for their family, a sentiment echoed by a slew of local mothers.
Emily McQuillen had always planned to be a stay-at-home mother, and after she and her husband had their first child in 2012, she got her wish. Instead of hearing about her child’s milestones from a teacher or day care provider, she would be able to witness them first-hand.
“I would see my kids’ first steps, I would see their first words, I would be the one to see all that,” said McQuillen, a former preschool teacher. “And to me, as a parent, I want to be the first one to see everything.”
Still, as a growing number of mothers find themselves working inside the home, the adjustment can often take time — particularly for those who previously worked full time.
Although the transition to full-time mother has come naturally to some — “I ran a lounge, (so) it’s the same thing,” joked Pollard. “I’m up all night, people are screaming and throwing up” — it can also represent a significant adjustment.
After leaving her teaching job, Cunningham went through a kind of withdrawal period. Four or five months after leaving, she says, she still felt isolated, lonely. A woman without a routine.
As time passed, however, she began to warm to her new role. She filled the void with other things, planning out activities, teaching her son the alphabet and the planets.
“Since I’ve been home, it’s kind of like I look at it as a management job,” she said. “I manage all the finances, the kids, the schedule, the appointments, the household chores. And so I’ve gotten my structure back that way.”
Now the woman who once couldn’t fathom the idea of being a stay-at-home mom has a hard time envisioning anything else.
“I loved my job, I loved my co-workers, I mourned,” she said of leaving her career. “It was kind of like going through a breakup or a divorce.
“But as much as I missed them, it was the easiest decision I ever made.”