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December 11, 2006
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Less Help at Home: Female Support for New Moms on the Decline

How is motherhood different than it was a century ago? In the past, live-in grandmothers, relatives, and other women were frequently available to assist with childcare. But times have changed. New research by Brown University sociologist Susan E. Short shows that today’s mothers with young children are getting substantially less help around the house. Even when other women are living in the household, they aren’t necessarily on hand to help with the kids. This research appears in Demography.

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Mothers of young children have experienced a significant decline in the presence and availability of other women in the household over the last 120 years, according to new research by Brown University sociologist Susan E. Short. In addition to Short, the research team included Frances K. Goldscheider and Berna M. Torr. Their results are published in Demography.

Analyzing U.S. census data from 1880 to 2000, the researchers examined patterns of co-residence for mothers with children 5 years old or younger. They focused on the household presence of females who traditionally helped mothers with childcare, such as the women’s mothers and mothers-in-law, other female relatives and non-relatives, and older daughters.


Where have all the helpers gone?
Between 1880 and 2000, the percentage of mothers with young children changed from being mostly homemakers (gray) or living on farms (white) to being non-agricultural employees.
Image: Susan E. Short/Demography

“This work adds to current discussion of work-family balance issues – and the ‘burden’ young mothers experience while trying to balance time demands – by looking beyond the young mothers’ own time-demands and the contributions made by fathers,” Short explained. “We focus on the presence and availability of other females in their households who might help out. Over the last century, the likelihood that they are there has declined. And it has declined most for women employed in non-agricultural activities.”

The findings show that at the end of the 20th century, only about 20 percent of mothers with young children lived with another female who might help with housework and childcare, compared to nearly 50 percent in the late 19th century. The average number of co-residing females in the home also declined over time.

Even when another female was present in the household, the researchers found that the availability of these co-residing women also significantly declined. For example, in 1880, 24 percent of mothers lived with a female age 10 or older who was not attending school or employed outside the home (therefore making them more available to assist with childcare). By 2000, that number had fallen to only 5 percent.

The researchers then divided this decline into two parts – changes in living arrangements and changes in schooling or work – and found that about half the decline was due to the decreased likelihood of living with other females and half the decline was due to increases in school or work involvement among co-resident females. The overall decline in having an older daughter around the house to help with the younger children was mostly due to the increased likelihood that older daughters were attending school. The overall decline in availability of mothers and mothers-in-law is mostly due to the increased likelihood that co-resident mothers and mothers-in-law are working outside the home.

This research grew out of a project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The researchers are currently exploring how the decline differs for different groups of young mothers.

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