After decades of judging and shaming mothers for "abandoning" their kids while they went off to work to commit the horrible and selfish act of providing for their families, Americans are now overwhelmingly OK with working mothers, according to a paper published in the latest edition of Psychology of Women quarterly.
The study, from researchers at San Diego State University and the University of Georgia, looked at nationally representative survey data from the 1970s through 2013, and found big cultural shifts. In 1977, 68 percent of U.S. adults believed "a preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works," compared to 42 percent in 1998 and 35 percent in 2012. (A recent study found that, actually, having a working mother can have a very positive impact on a child.)
Younger adults were even more supportive of working mothers. The new study found that just 22 percent of high school seniors surveyed from 2010 to 2013 said they believe a child suffers when his or her mother works.
So that's cool. But the thing is, public policy and most private employers haven't caught up to changing attitudes. The U.S. still remains the only democratic nation on the planet without any paid parental leave.
"The reality is, most women with young children are in the workplace," said Jean Twenge, the author of "Generation Me" and a psychology professor at San Diego State University who worked on the new research paper. "Yet among industrialized nations, we don't compare very well in terms of the support we give working families for daycare and preschool."
Nothing much has changed at the federal level since the U.S. passed a law requiring employers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave for caretakers in 1993. "I don't feel like we've made any progress [on family leave] since then," Anne Weisberg, a senior vice president at the nonprofit research group the Families and Work Institute, told The Huffington Post.
A very young-looking Bill Clinton signs the Family and Medical Leave act in 1993.
One of the big objections to paid leave traditionally comes from businesses, which tend to argue that offering workers paid leave increases costs. But a mounting pile of evidence doesn't support that theory. Nearly 90 percent of California businesses reported no cost increases due to the state's now 10-year-old leave law, according to one survey. In fact, 43 percent of businesses in the state reported a cost savings, because they were able to hold on to more workers (decreasing training costs) and reduce spending on benefits.
Other companies, like Google, have also increased employee retention by increasing paid leave.
Oh, and paid leave saves the government money and disproportionately helps lower-income women. In New Jersey, women who took paid leave were around 40 percent less likely to receive public benefits like food stamps or welfare, according to a Rutgers study cited by Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times.
So what's taking policymakers and business leaders so long to catch up?
First, not all attitudes have shifted, said Weisberg. "We still have a lot of ambivalence about gender roles. Even though most people say they believe women should work outside the home, we know for a fact that there's a lot of maternal bias when it comes to hiring women, promoting women."
Despite what the new study found about shifting attitudes, a 2013 survey from Pew found a majority of Americans still believe it's better for children if the mother stays home. "They don't say the same thing if the dad stays home," Weisberg said.
She also noted that most Americans view having children as a "choice" -- not a societal good. That prevents us from supporting parents at the policy level. Yet if we don't, Weisberg said we could wind up like Japan, a country that offers little policy support for working mothers. Increasingly, young women there are choosing not to have children. The country's birth rate is currently below replacement levels, which could have devastating consequences for Japan's economy.
Of course, there's also the classic American aversion to taxes and spending money on social reform. And there's the issue of who's in charge of making change. Though women make up a huge part of the workforce, they're still largely missing from the corner office -- and from the political sphere.
"Very few members of Congress, I suspect, have dropped a child off at day care," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said recently, speaking of paid family leave. "Very few members of Congress know exactly how much day care costs, because they didn't pay those bills. And so for a lot of members of Congress, they don't relate to the issue -- either because they have enormous wealth so they have unlimited caregivers, or they're men whose wives chose to stay at home and they had the resources to do that."
Still, some progress is happening. Gillibrand's Family Act, which proposes financing paid leave through a small payroll tax, isn't totally dead yet. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island now offer paid parental leave. Other states are considering it.
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has affirmed her support for universal pre-K.
Businesses also are waking up to the idea that their workers have needs outside the office. Companies are increasingly offering more and better paid leave, on-site childcare and other support for employees. Still, those benefits are typically for higher-paid, white-collar workers.
Only 13 percent of employers in the U.S. offer paid leave to full-time workers, according to the most recent data from the Labor Department. Women in low-wage jobs, a fast-growing group, suffer disproportionately from a lack of support for paid leave.
And for them, the stakes are getting higher. "We are really reaching a breaking point," said Weisberg. "Stress levels are increasing, especially among working women." She pointed out that life expectancy for women has actually been falling in recent years, and she speculated that stress among lower-income women could play a role.
The stakes are that high.