GWP welcomes Sarah Damaske, an assistant professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and Sociology at the Pennsylvania State University and author of For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work (Oxford University Press, October 3, 2011). Her remarkable new study of moms and work, described in detail in her new book and below, goes far in separating myth from fact.

A judge presides over the case of Kate Reddy, a working-mother. Her crimes: not knowing her daughter’s preference for broccoli and indulging her children with expensive Christmas presents. This poignant nightmare from Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, now a major motion picture starring Sarah Jessica Parker, deftly portrays Kate’s fears that she will be considered a bad mother.

A hedge-fund manager, devoted wife of an architect and mother of two, Kate works at a high-stress and high demanding job. Before her youngest turns two, she has left the firm and moved to the country where her husband will be the sole breadwinner. Kate’s story is a commonly told one about middle-class women’s choice to “opt-out” of the workplace due to the pressures of combining work and family.

But this story does not accurately portray the average working-mother who leaves work.

In my research with eighty women living in New York City in 2006-2007, I discovered that it is working-class mothers who are more likely to interrupt their careers and often face prolonged periods out of work, as they move into and out of the labor market in search of a good position. Working-class moms have a harder time cobbling together childcare so working outside the home has to be worth the effort—meaning jobs that provide benefits, the promise of promotion, a fair wage, and the respect of employers (characteristics often lacking in the service sector jobs these women most often found themselves in).

Turns out that most middle-class mothers are “doing it”—weaving work and motherhood. In fact, the movie version of the book has changed the story to show Kate staying at work in the end. Women with higher education and higher-status jobs benefit from more than just their larger incomes, they typically have more “social capital,” including an insider’s understanding of the ways that the workplace functions and connections to people who can help them find jobs. These resources make it easier for middle-class women to stay in the labor market when faced with a bad job because they are connected to networks that can help secure better employment. Rather than opting-out of the workforce, per the fictional Kate, many of the middle-class moms that I met switched jobs (sometimes multiple times) in an attempt to balance home and work.

All of the mothers who participated in my study, whether or not they worked, shared Kate’s fear that someone would sit as judge and jury to their crimes of imperfect motherhood. This pressure to be good mothers did not lead women to leave work—in fact the majority of women in my study, like the majority of mothers nationwide, work. But it has led to a common response when women are asked to justify their decisions about work.

Whether the decision is to stay home or go to work, the majority of women justify their work decisions as being made for their families. Women who work explain that labor market participation fulfills their families’ needs. Cynthia, a working-mom married to a husband earning six figures, explained that she stayed at work, “so I could make all the extras and everything for [my kids].”  Those who leave work explain that they, too, make their decision for their family. Virginia, a stay-at-home mom whose husband is unemployed, said she left work to “be home for the kids,” although she only left work when a new boss reduced her job flexibility and publicly belittled her. These responses allow women to emphasize behavior they believe is acceptable, such as decisions made to care for family and to minimize behavior that might be seen in a negative light, such as taking advantage of a job opportunity or finding disappointment at work.

Cultural expectations about selfless motherhood lead women to say they make work decisions for their family and continue to drive the public discourse about women’s work. Ultimately, the talk of middle-class women’s choice or working-class mothers’ financial need to work constrains our public consciousness, pigeonholing women’s work as selfishly chosen or unrewardingly forced. Instead, my research suggests that women examine the possibilities that lie before them and make decisions that they believe best for themselves and their families.

The woman who “chooses” to leave work because her financial resources allow it is a red herring. She draws attention away from the real issues that all women, even fictional Kate, face in the workplace: a lack of workplace flexibility, few childcare options, few sick days, and little parental leave. All women would benefit from policies that addressed these concerns, but we also need to focus our attention on creating better work environments for working class women so that these women, too, can find the respect and fair wages that will lead them to stay at work. Creating better work environments will mean more women will stay at work and that stability will be better for mothers, families and the economy in the long run.

Sarah Damaske