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New moms taking less time off with babies

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First-time mothers are working longer into their pregnancy and returning to work sooner after their babies are born than in decades past, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The report, based on a survey of those who gave birth for the first time between 1961 and 2000, shows more mothers-to-be working during pregnancy, often into the final month.

About 57% of new mothers in 1996-2000 had worked full time while pregnant compared with about 40% in 1961-65. And of those employed between 1996 and 2000, more than half worked into the last month of pregnancy. After giving birth, 65% returned to work within a year.

Women with a higher education level are likely to be in higher-paying jobs and tend to stay on the job longer while pregnant and return sooner, the report suggests.

Those who study family and work life believe there are several reasons for these trends, including an economy that makes it difficult for families to live on a single income.

"There is a lot of burden in these figures, I think," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and president of the non-profit Center for Work-Life Policy. She says a study she authored earlier this year found that women lose 18% of their earning power if they take a year or two off work. Another study by researchers at Cornell University said women face a "motherhood penalty" because they are less likely to be hired, are offered lower salaries and must deal with the perception they would be less committed to the job than fathers or childless women.

Hewlett also worries about mothers returning to work so soon after having a child.

"If women are returning to work more quickly after childbirth because of financial pressure -- I think that is happening -- it's really bad news for newborn babies," she says. "All of the expert opinion says you need four to six months to really bond with a newborn."

So, if these new moms are back on the job during their child's first year, what's happening to the kids?

That's the focus of another Census report, which offers a snapshot of child care during winter 2002. That analysis found that families with a working mother and children under age 15 spent an average of $95 a week on child care.

But because that amount reflects the gamut from child care for infants and toddlers to after-school programs for school-age kids to informal arrangements with relatives for infants all the way through teens, those in the child-care field say the $95 a week average is hardly what families pay.

"Certainly the price per year varies enormously with the age of the child," says Rosalind Barnett, director of the Community, Families & Work Program at Brandeis University. "If you're talking about full-time care for a baby -- that's a very expensive proposition. If you're talking about three hours after school for a 10-year-old -- that's another proposition."

Washington, D.C.-based child-care expert Joan Lombardi says care for young children can easily cost $10,000 or more a year.

"You can't go from this number of $95 a week to assuming that's what a family with full-time child care needs will be paying, because it will be higher," she says.

Those financial considerations are among the reasons some mothers are staying home, says Wendy Sachs, author of How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-at-Work Moms.

Sachs, 34 and the mother of two preschoolers in South Orange, N.J., says expensive care and long hours on the job are taking their toll on women in the workforce. She's seeing a stay-at-home trend among two groups -- younger women who decide it's not financially worth it to work and pay child care and older mothers who have worked for 15 or 20 years and can afford to take a break.

Barnett says she hasn't seen data supporting such observations, but she has also heard the anecdotes.

"In the real world, people are moving in and out of the labor force," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the non-profit Families and Work Institute. She says the work world is adapting to all these changes.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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