Not All Women Get to Decide Between Opting Out and Leaning In

The Pew Research Center released a report showing that, following a long-term decline, the number of stay-at-home moms is on the rise. Nearly 30 percent of American mothers with children under 18, Pew found, do not hold a job outside the home, up from 23 percent in 1999. On the surface, these findings would seem to represent a defeat for Sheryl Sandberg and her "Lean In" cohorts: More stay-at-home moms means that more women are opting out, eschewing "having it all" in favor of a more "traditional" arrangement in which the husband earns the money and the wife raises the kids.

Or does it?

The thing about the conversations surrounding women and work is that they tend to center around the idea of choice, and the decisions women -- from the career girls embracing their potentials as breadwinners to the feminist housewives who are "having it all by choosing to stay home" -- are making. But choice isn't a factor for everyone. In fact, Pew's report doesn't point to any sort of victory for women at all. Quite the opposite, actually.

What it does point to is the fact that the choices for moms are increasingly limited. A growing number of non-working mothers, Pew found, are unmarried. The percentage of children raised by a stay-at-home mother with a working husband has fallen to 20 percent, from above 40 in 1970. That is, it's not the privileged elite staying home to raise the kids, but increasingly single women living in poverty.

And even among those stay-at-home moms who are married, six percent -- up from one percent in 2000 -- say they'd like to work, but either can't find a job or can't get hired. Others don't go back to work because of prohibitively high childcare costs. It doesn't help that salaries for women aren't rising in proportion to those for men; a Pew report from a few weeks back looked at the economic mobility of women compared to their parents and found women today earn less than their fathers did. The majority of men, on the other hand, out-earn their dads.

Indeed, the new findings are less about values than about economy. The new Pew report reveals that stay-at-home moms are younger, less likely to be white, less likely to have a college education, and more likely to have been born outside of the United States. 34 percent of them live in poverty. By contrast, those moms who choose to leave the workforce because they can afford to hovers around a mere 5 percent.

In the ongoing Mommy Wars, the stay-at-home mother has been, at turns, revered and demonized. But there's a third reality that rarely enters the discussion: Moms whose choices to do one or the other -- stay home or return to work -- are not really choices at all. The truth is that it's possible to use findings to satisfy a variety of agendas, to twist numbers to prove whatever point you're looking to make. And that the real story is often far more complex than the latest statistic. More women are staying home -- that's true. More women are working -- that's also true. But not all women get to decide between opting out or leaning in. That, as Pew has shown, is a luxury becoming increasingly rare.