Less help at home -- Female support for new Moms on the decline

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- 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 re-search 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 coresidence for mothers with children aged zero to five years old. 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.

"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 past 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 twentieth century, only about 20 percent of mothers with young children lived with another female who might help with housework and childcare, com-pared to nearly 50 percent in the late nineteenth century. The average number coresiding females in the home also declined over time.

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

The researchers then decomposed 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 de-creased 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 is mostly due to the increase in the likelihood that the 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.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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