May 7, 2014

Opting out? About 10% of highly educated moms are staying at home

Credit: Igor Demchenkov / Getty Images
Credit: Igor Demchenkov / Getty Images

About one-in-ten mothers with a Master’s degree or more are staying at home in order to care for their family, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data. Among mothers with professional degrees, such as medical degrees, law degrees or nursing degrees, 11% are relatively affluent and are out of the workforce in order to care for their families. This is true for 9% of Master’s degree holders and 6% of mothers with a Ph.D.

These so-called “opt-out moms” (roughly 10% of all highly educated mothers) make up just 1% of the nation’s 35 million mothers ages 18 to 69 who are living with their children younger than 18. For our purposes, “opt-out moms” are mothers who have at least a Master’s degree, an annual family income of $75,000 or more; a working husband; and who state that they are out of the workforce in order to care for their family.

Lisa Belkin first coined the term “opting out” in 2003, to describe highly educated, high-achieving women who seemingly chose to “opt out, ratchet back, and redefine work” after becoming mothers.  Ever since then, the phenomenon of “opt-out” mothers has been a subject of much media fascination—the idea that such ambitious, professionally-successful women would put their careers aside, for the opportunity to focus exclusively on  their families seemed to really strike a chord.

opt-out mothersAnd yet, when examining the total population of mothers who stay at home with their children, these so-called “opt-out moms” make up a very small share (4%). Most of the recent growth in stay-at-home moms has been driven by those with less education, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

Affluent, highly educated women who exit the workforce may not be “opting out”. Some suggest that they are being pushed out, due to the difficulties of balancing work and family in the U.S.  Indeed, a 2009 Center for Work-Life Policy surveyof “highly qualified” women (with advanced degrees, or with high-honors undergraduate degrees), found that among those who had stepped away from their careers, fully 69% said they would not have done so if their workplace offered more flexible work arrangements.

Leaving the workforce is not necessarily a permanent step.  In that 2009 survey, fully 89% of those highly qualified women who had left their careers (the plurality of whom did so to care for family) reported that they did plan to return to work. Seventy percent did so, typically after about two and a half years out of the workforce. Furthermore, Pew Research Center analyses indicate that the likelihood of being a stay-at-home mother is higher for those with preschool-aged children— presumably because many moms return to work once their kids are in school.

FT_14.05.06_OptOutMoms_2In families with these highly educated, affluent non-working moms, it may be the husbands who are bringing home the bacon, but in 37% of the cases, it is the stay-at-home wives who actually have a higher level of education. In 45% of these families, the spouses have equal educational attainment, and in about 18% of the cases, the husbands have more education than their wives. An estimate using a slightly different methodology suggests that the share of all U.S. married couples where the wife has more education than the husband is about 21%.

Looking at these elite stay-at-home moms a bit differently—fully 69% identify as white.  A disproportionate share (19%) is Asian, while 7% are Hispanic, and 3% are black. They tend to be a bit older than other moms; about eight-in-ten are ages 35 to 69. Their median annual family income is well over $100,000.

While a relatively small share of all mothers has a Master’s degree or more, the educational attainment of all mothers has been growing steadily in recent decades. This trend has been driven by both the increasing educational levels of all women, and the fact that fertility rates for the college-educated have not fallen as much as rates for the less educated.

Topics: Work and Employment, Parenthood

  1. Photo of Gretchen Livingston

    is a senior researcher focusing on fertility and family demographics at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    The article is based on US mom but it may be a universal phenomenon. What I would like to know is – ” if the opt-out moms are exclusive to affluent families and importantly if the decisions/clarity to opt-out is there with these women while they are pursuing and investing in their education or are they influenced by the security and support they get from their educated partners / affluent families” after they are married. I guess, probably bet, every highly educated women is faced with the dilemma of how they want to use their education even before they decide how they want to nurture their children – 1) being an full time educated mother to their children (as a Opt out mom) or 2) a part time mother and part time career women (super- mom , tiger mom) or 3) a full time career women (perfected maintaining work – life balance).

    I would be interested to know more on this.

  2. JDMOM2 years ago

    A little late to the discussion here, but why hasn’t anyone mentioned working FROM home while staying home with kids? As a self-employed attorney, I currently do that with 2 kids at home on a very part-time basis, and opted out of working as someone’s employee years ago. My husband’s earning potential is less than mine, though technically he earns more at this time (because I am part time). Granted, the money is not as great as it once was, but I am in full agreement with the math major below. Why doesn’t anyone bat an eyelash about “outsourcing” your child-raising responsibilities? Granted, the fancy classes have been doing this for hundreds of years, and they didn’t turn out so bad without THEIR absentee parents. Kind of wondering about that too….

  3. Eric L2 years ago

    You’ve artificially restricted your definition of “opt out Mom”. Any woman who is capable of working but chooses to be a mother is “opting out”. She doesn’t need a Master’s degree or any degree at all. She also doesn’t need a high family income to opt out. Also, “opting out” may be as simple as choosing to work part time instead of full time.

  4. vanyali3 years ago

    I wonder what overlap there is between opting out and homeschooling? I am an “opt out” mom who couldn’t secure decent education for my children in the cities where my skills were in demand, so I gave up several hundred thousand dollars in salary to stay home with them in a cheaper part of the country. After years of deluding myself that I would find care and schooling for them and good work for myself one day, I started homeschooling and would never go back. The education they are getting now, both academically and socially (ever notice how much better behaved homeschool kids are than school kids?) is vastly superior to anything I could buy in the marketplace. And our home life is fun instead of stressful. The sticky part of the situation is the social angle among adults. Stay at home moms are severely looked down on in our society, particularly among professionals. That means I had to give up all of my adult friendships with my paycheck. I think that is a shame, but the benefits still outweigh that cost.

    1. Patricia Harvey3 years ago

      You are one smart mama. I also quit my teaching career to home-school my kids. What fascinates me is the new science explaining how a history of insecure maternal-infant attachment can cause neurobiological changes that adversely impact oxytocin and dopamine production in mothers, altering the normal reward system. When such a mother looks at her baby, she doesn’t feel the joy and rush of emotions that securely attached mothers to. These changes are epigenetic, caused by stress-hormones impacting the DNA. I think all the anti-nurturing, farm-your-kids-out, advice new mothers are getting today must be the result of a Mommy Apocalypse: a genetically-altered population of mothers who look like everyone else, but have little or no passion for their children.
      There is absolutely no reason children have to be raised on a six-figure income. They can be raised below the poverty line, too, and even thrive.

      1. S. Bailey2 years ago

        I’ve also “opted-out” of a teaching career to stay at home and homeschool our kids. Agree with you both, there is nothing better in the world than spending quality time with your family. Everyone, including dad, is less stressed, and we’re able to provide our children with a loving, nurturing, relatively stress-free home where they are free to be themselves and not have to worry about conforming to social norms that are completely destructive to many kids who are traditionally schooled and who lack a SAHP.

  5. Jennifer Hall Jones3 years ago

    Nice to know we are statistically significant enough to warrant a label! All joking aside though, I definitely feel that the choice I made was a good one, although it changed me in ways that I could not have imagined. Instead of re-entering the workforce a couple or a few years later I chose to remain at home and become active as a volunteer in my children’s schools. The decision to remain home, make home cooked meals, help ferry kids to and fro for extracurricular activities and manage the home life is a mixed bag for me. I’m very grateful I had the choice, made the decision-however one wants to frame that, but it also meant few, if any vacations, home improvements, new cars, $ for retirement etc. Our income is nowhere near 100,000, so, we get by as it were because the value I place on being available to help with homework, drive for field trips, participate in my children’s education is worth the trade-off. I also recognize that it is a trade-off. Opportunities for advancing in my field-I hold a Masters in Clinical Psychology, were left behind and now that my two boys are about to finish high school, I am in my early 50’s and ready to start another career!
    It would be interesting to me to see what research exists that illuminates these choices further. Participating in making the community stronger and more connected by making it possible to do the school field trips (experiential learning), enriching neighborhood life by providing snacks and a safe space to be for many others and working with other parents to find ways for our kids to give back would define my life these past many years. Opt out or in doesn’t quite cover it…but I appreciate the article!

  6. Carolyn Johnson3 years ago

    Opting out is fantastic. Opting back in, however, is another story. The decision to raise children full time is not so valued by employers. Less educated men still command much higher salaries in this country, which is why they often remain the breadwinners. That being said, I still wouldn’t trade my children’s formation for anything…. Anything! I just wish the US market with catch up and take better care of parents and other caretakers.

  7. Sinnathamby3 years ago

    Education and high qualification is more important for a mother to take care of her children and manage families more efficiently than running a business. It does not anyway mean that an uneducated mother will fail in doing her duties. Like how other living species take care of their siblings successfully. it is a natural gift to female species.

  8. RM3 years ago

    Being a stay-at-home mother takes far more intelligence, creativity and energy than any profession. I was a so-called “opt-out” mom (I have a master’s degree in mathematics from a nationally well-known and well-revered University) until my husband left, forcing me to work. I would argue that these moms are actually “opt-in” moms. I’m a high achiever in my career (not only because it is my nature to do my best, but in order to have an amount of money to support my family without any help), but feel my boys, now grown, have suffered as a result. Parents cannot expect children to have or retain the values they want them to have, and cannot complain about it, if they both choose to work and leave the children to be raised by outsiders (day care workers, babysitters, nannies, etc). The only acceptable caregiver other than parents, in my opinion, is a competent and loving grandparent. Children are also more prone to spend time with the “wrong” peer group without a parent around to manage their associations. I believe that contributes to the problems with society overall. I admire, and am envious of, the mother’s, and sometimes father’s, who choose to devote their time to raising their children. I think if couples decide to have children, they should decide that one of them will stay at home with the children. That is the most intelligent decision.

  9. slk3 years ago

    whoever is the bread winner, should work, and the other stay home!!! and soon, you can start bringing up children with goals, instead of brats!!!