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Monday, May 16, 2005

Survey says? Validate me!

Perhaps too many people learned about surveys by watching Richard Dawson on Family Feud. Contestants on the hugely popular 80s quiz show didn't just answer trivia questions. Rather they tried to match their answers to the most popular answers in an audience survey. If the question was, "Name an animal you might see at the zoo," lemurs, capybaras, and mandrills are correct answers. But they probably aren't the most correct.

Lesson: giving the popular answers is good.

Although I imagine participating in a poll about parenting for the Washington Post tends to lead people to the safe, popular answers too. It also, sadly, leads to the safe, popular, shiny, happy questions.

On Mothers' Day, the Post ran an article about motherhood and parenting, called Children, Career and Choices that included some data from a recent poll of mothers. I was excited to read that overall, women were happy with their choices, although sometimes frustrated and guilty. I even agree with those sentiments. I'm mostly happy and feel fortunate that I'm home raising my kid. But I do have frustrations because I don't have the perfect part-time career budding in the background, though I am trying.

But once I got past that glossy overview (More than nine in 10 said they were satisfied with the arrangements they had made to care for their children. Seven in 10 described themselves as "very satisfied."), I felt like I was in TV Land. Here are two of the highlights (or low lights):
Fifty-two percent of those who stay at home think a mother should be allowed to work for pay if it makes her happier. (Allowed??!!)

Three in four feel that, given their financial situation, the work-home balance they have constructed is the best they could do both for their children and for themselves. (Given their financial situation? Sounds like they don't have many other choices. How could things be better?)
Where were meaty, gutsy questions: Does your employer offers enough flexible time? Would you like to see more on-site childcare? Do you have access to high-quality, affordable child care options? Before leaving your job to become an at-home parent, did your employer offer a part-time option? Or flexible hours? Or a job-share? Would you have stayed in the workforce if you had been given those options?

There was some job information:
About 4 in 10 have changed jobs, and a similar proportion have turned down a promotion or new responsibilities; Five in 10 have cut back their hours; Three in 10 have worked from home on a regular basis.
I have seen women give up their careers for lesser work-from-home substitutes because there were no family-friendly options. In that case, a job change is not good news. And is turning down a promotion good for women? Do we really need to hold ourselves back in order to right by our families? If you want to see good stuff in these numbers, you will. But it's all about the context of these changes. I'm not trying to be a downer, but I've known too many women who have been in these situations, and rarely are these changes positive.

Ask women a bunch of canned questions about their "choices" and their "balance," and get a bunch of useless data. Motherhood has been so targeted lately with "mommy wars" and "hyper-parenting" that women probably just want to feel good about themselves. Give the popular answers. Give the answers the survey conductor wants to hear.
Fifty-one percent think it's better for the child if one parent stays home.
I wonder how many of the people surveyed are working vs. at-home parents? And if you're not one of the ones staying home and deep down you think it's better if one parent is at home, would you say that out loud? Admit to a stranger you wish things were different? And vice-versa, how many at-home parents put on happy faces to the outside world, but are really struggling with their identity and wish they could work? Shock! Horror! That would mean that they aren't willing to sacrafice for their children! And public opinion already thinks mothers are doing a bad job:
Although 68 percent of Americans in a recent Post-ABC News national survey agreed that motherhood is more demanding today than it was a generation ago, 48 percent think mothers are doing a worse job, compared with 12 percent who feel they were doing better.
But who wants to hear that mothers aren't happy? So without the opportunity to answer real questions, women are going to say they are happy and content (I did a few paragraphs ago, even though that's not totally true). Let's just say we're satisfied because if we say it out loud, we just might believe it. Then if we read it in the newspaper, it must be true.

Maybe the Post should have done a preliminary survey to find out what mothers really wanted to know about other women. They most definitely would NOT have said, "I'd like to know if other women are somewhat satisfied, satisfied, or very satisfied.

But then it wouldn't have been a warm, fuzzy Mothers' Day story. Survey says: You let us down again.


  1. You've said it. People try to give the "correct" answer or the answer that validates their own situation.

    But Fifty-two percent of those who stay at home think a mother should be allowed to work for pay if it makes her happier. (Allowed??!!)

    Does that mean that 48%, or half of all SAHM's think that mothers should be banned from working? Even if they are depressed and suicidal at home?


  2. Excellent point Jay. "Allowed" is sort of a strange word for them to use in their survey. I wonder how many people surveyed thought that was a weird question.