WASHINGTON -- The questions weigh on the minds of many mothers soon after giving birth: When should I go back to work? If I do, can I keep part-time hours, or work more from home?
According to the Census Bureau, a smaller percentage of mothers is heading back to work during the first year of their child's life. More than 55 percent of the 3.9 million women age 15 to 44 who gave birth between July 1999 and June 2000 returned to work, or were actively seeking a job within a year of having their baby.
That was down from a record high of 59 percent the last time the survey was conducted, in 1998.
The declines came mainly among white women, mothers older than 30, married women and those with higher levels of education -- characteristics of women who tend to live in families that make more money.
Still, for more of these women, it was a lifestyle choice rather than an economic one, said Catherine Carbone Rogers, spokeswoman for Mothers & More, an organization for women who have altered their career path to care for children at home.
''I decided I wasn't doing a good job of doing either so I decided to stay at home to raise my kids,'' said Diane Caisse of Gaithersburg, Md. She stopped working part time from home as a travel agent earlier this year to focus on raising her 2- and 4-year-old sons.
Other mothers are taking advantage of more flexible work options, such as working limited hours at home.
Groups that did see an increase in mothers who returned to work within a year after giving birth include blacks, Asians and women who were not high school graduates.
It is not clear how recent the recent economic slide will affect that flexibility.
''Whether the declines are short-lived or will continue depends to a considerable extent on changes in the economy and changes in the lifestyles of new mothers in balancing work and child-rearing activities,'' Census Bureau analyst Martin O'Connell said.
Caisse said she was not surprised by the trend, though her situation is unusual compared with members of a working mothers support group she leads. Lately, more women have been returning to work, at least part time, she said.
More pressure may be put on women now to find work soon after giving birth because of recent layoffs and the economic unrest, Caisse said.
The figures were part of a larger report on fertility released Thursday; as a result, it did not include statistics on fathers.
--The percentage of women age 15 to 44 without a child rose from 42.2 percent in 1998 to 42.8 percent in 2000.
--About 1.2 million women gave birth out of wedlock in the 12 months preceding the June 2000 survey. That was 31 percent of all births during that period.
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