The layoff notice was not a complete surprise. At the shipping center in Denver where Jeanine Maez filled mail orders, the trend had been toward paperless transactions.
But how Ms. Maez reacted to being unemployed in 2004 was a revelation, even to herself: She decided not to look for a new job in favor of staying home full time with her five children, the youngest of whom, a son, is 11.
"The years of 'winging it' with my husband in terms of taking care of the kids had been too hard, and I was tired," she said. "And my youngest son, who is autistic, needed his mama."
To make ends meet, Ms. Maez, 44, sold her car, paid off her credit card debt and disciplined herself to spend more modestly on clothes and household goods. Her husband, a private investigator, took a second job selling insurance. "Whatever it takes to make a buck," she said. "My sweet honey struggles a lot to make it work for us."
In multiple ways, Ms. Maez is the face of modern stay-at-home motherhood in America, where 65 percent of married women who stay home with children under 18 years old live in households that earn less than $75,000 a year, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The political storm over stay-at-home mothers took off last week when the Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney, the wife of the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, "never worked a day in her life," and it raises the question of just who is the modern stay-at-home mom.
Stay-at-home mothers are younger, less educated and more likely to be Hispanic than they were in previous generations, and perhaps have a more traditional view of family and more limited job skills than other women these days, according to a Census Bureau report that analyzed changes in stay-at-home motherhood from 1969 to 2009. Eighteen percent of stay-at-home mothers lack a high school degree, compared with 7 percent of women in the work force. And black women were about half as likely as white women to be a stay-at-home mothers.
Across the country, 70 percent of married women over the age of 25 with children work outside the home. The median income of those households is about $87,700, compared with $64,000 for households where the mother stays at home, according to an analysis by Andrew Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York. "The biggest difference is education," he said.
According to the Census Bureau's 40-year review, "Those with the least education are now the most likely to stay out of the labor force as stay-at-home mothers."
Ms. Maez, who holds an associate degree and is of Hispanic origin, said she regretted that she had been unable to find a profession that would have let her work from home. "I wish I had more education," she said. "I think that would have made a difference."
She cares for her grandson, Angelo, 5, so that her daughter Diana Maez can work. "I know that she would love to be home with the baby if she could," Jeanine Maez said. Diana Maez confirmed that in a separate interview, although she said she liked the self-esteem boost from earning a paycheck as a security guard.
"I'm very fortunate to have my mother to watch my son," she said. "If I had to afford day care, well, I don't know how I could really do that."
Natalie Tognetti, 32, who has a bachelor's degree in environmental science, was working as a paralegal full time for about two years before she became pregnant. Her husband is a lawyer for a software firm in Boulder, Colo., and his job has allowed her to stay at home with their three daughters, ages 4, 6 and 7.
Still, despite her husband's good job, Ms. Tognetti, who is pregnant, watches how she spends money on food and family activities, which she conceded she might not have to worry about if she worked.
She said she thought that Ms. Rosen had mistakenly conflated Ann Romney's economic status with her decision to stay at home with her children.
"The fact that she is a stay-at-home mom doesn't put her out of touch," Ms. Tognetti said. "I think it's more of a class issue."
First Published April 16, 2012 12:00 AM