Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

More mothers are staying home with their kids, says a new Pew report. The number of stay-at-home mothers reached an all-time low of 23 percent in 1999 and then began to rise until about 2004. By 2012, the percentage of stay-at-home mothers had jumped to 29 percent, up from 26 percent in 2008.

What’s the story here? Likely, the recession plays into the increase, as more women (and men) have struggled to find jobs. Pew cites a “mix of demographic, economic and societal factors” contributing to the upswing, including “continued public ambivalence about the impact of working mothers on young children.”

A poor economy means less opportunity for both mothers and fathers; it also means more families are struggling to make ends meet. It is, of course, best when families can decide what’s optimal in terms of work-family balance, rather than having their choices limited by a poor economy.

And most working mothers would choose to work less. As another Pew research report showed last year, and as Maggie Gallagher pointed out in National Review Online on Tuesday:

Fewer than half (46 percent) of full-time-working mothers consider their current situation ideal. Most prefer part-time work, as do a sizable chunk of mothers at home.

As Gallagher also points out, and as the same Pew report shows, the trend of mothers’ work preferences has remained fairly steady over the last decade- and-a-half. In 1997, 70 percent of mothers expressed a preference for working part-time or not at all. In 2012, this percentage remained about the same, at 67 percent.

As Brad Wilcox, University of Virginia professor and head of the National Marriage Project, explained in the Atlantic in December 2013:

[T]he vast majority of married mothers don’t want to work full-time…married mothers who are able to cut back at work to accommodate their family’s needs tend to be happier. The news cycle is stuck in a lean-in loop, but new data show mothers report more happiness when they can lean homeward.

Gallagher points out that one of the greatest challenges preventing women from achieving this desire is the declining wages of men along with a poor economy:

The problem Americans workers face, both male and female, is…a poor economy with widespread wage stagnation. Combine that with “moderate” inflation (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator, the dollar has lost 16 cents of value since 2006 alone) and you’ve got a steadily shrinking family paycheck.

A strong economy means that families have more options when it comes to employment decisions. It gives parents greater freedom in determining what works best in harmonizing family and career. It also provides more opportunity for families to thrive. Raising children is arguably the most challenging work a mother, or father, will ever do. Policies that support a strong economy are crucial to giving families the greatest ability to succeed.