Balancing Work and Life: Self-Employment as a Child Care Alternative

On February 22, a review by Sara Sclaroff of Penelope Leach’s book, Child Care Today: Getting it Right for Everyone, appeared in the Outlook section of The Washington Post.  Sclaroff noted that balancing work and child care is something we haven’t quite figured out as a nation. Despite the new First Lady’s commendable first priority to be “Mom in Chief,” the options for many American women—still the primary child care providers—seem few: either stay at home full time if that is an economic possibility, or work away from home full time and struggle to make do with less than optimal child care choices. As a working mom, Sclaroff notes, “there are more days than I can count when I linger in my daughter’s classroom at dropoff, wishing I could stay for hours, or find myself sitting at my computer giggling to myself about her latest malapropism.”

In a country that doesn’t lack for inventive thinking, though, it seems that a certain cadre of women are adopting a third way to attend to both work and family life: self-employment. A new study by three women academics, Tami Gurley-Calvez, Katherine Harper, and Amelia Biehl, released February 26 by the Office of Advocacy, looks at how self-employed women spend their time.

Are women, like men, primarily motivated to become self-employed by earnings potential? It appears not. More women than men—and more women in self-employment than in wage-and-salary work—seem to use self-employment to balance work and family needs. “Consistent with family motivations for selecting self-employment, self-employed women spend less time than both men and women in wage-and-salary jobs on work-related activities, and more time on household activities and caring for children,” the study finds.

Part-time self-employment for women may be more of a make-do solution than a panacea for mothers who need to work. Certainly it is one way of responding to Penelope Leach’s strong recommendation that parents take time to stay home with infants and young children to establish the attachment that is so necessary to healthy development. But it may prove to be a difficult path for single breadwinners.

A number of findings in Advocacy’s study about women’s use of time could be helpful to policymakers, including data about their earnings and education, differences by industry and marital status, and how women balance self-employment work with other activities. For more, see Self-employed Women and Time Use.


—Kathryn Tobias