SEBRING - When she was pregnant with her first daughter, Brianna, Callie Wilkes took maternity leave from her job at the Sebring Wal-Mart and then took five and a half years off work to raise David, now 7, and Layla, now 3.
While her husband, David, works when he can as a self-employed construction worker, the Sebring mother, now working at the Sebring Dollar General store, said staying at home with her children from infants through elementary school has been the best way for her to nurture, love, teach and bring them up.
Wilkes joins the nearly three in 10 American mothers who are now stay-at-home moms - which includes those who are disabled or are in school - who don't hold a job outside the home, according to statistics released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. The results showed that the percentage of mothers of children under 18 who don't work outside the home has risen over the past decade to 29 percent in 2012, up from 23 percent in 1999. Of those, two-thirds are married stay-at-home mothers with working husbands, but an increasing number are not married.
The Census showed since the 1970s, the percentage of children raised by a stay-at-home mother with a working husband has fallen from 41 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2012. Children raised as such are becoming more rare, especially among both white and black families. However, the percentage of stay-at-home moms in Asian and Hispanic families is higher - about 10 percentage points or more, on average.
Wilkes said those figures weren't a surprise. She said even working part time with children can be physically and emotionally taxing, especially with more than one child.
"I'd rather be at home. When you're working, you're missing a lot stuff with schooling," said Wilkes, who spends part of her shifts working night hours during her 20-hour work week. "It's (working) a struggle when you have three kids so I really want to stay at home as much as possible so I'm not missing out on everything they're doing."
Around Highlands County, although exact figures weren't available Wednesday, the trend doesn't appear to be much different, said Jeffrey Roth, director of the Champion for Children Advocacy Center, a United Way organization designed to minimize trauma to child abuse victims, provide support to families and keep them intact.
According to the 2012 U.S. Census, in Highlands County, parents in the labor force with children under 6 is 68 percent; those with children 6 to 17 is 11 percent. Roth said he didn't know of county data pinpointing figures relating to mothers of children under 18 who don't work outside the home, but based on clients he deals with in his career, he suspects the figures would correlate locally. Roth said factors resulting in stay-at-home mothers with working fathers could also be when working, having a lower income than the father, transportation issues and personal decisions, particularly for mothers with a special-needs child.
"It seems as though we have a lot of non-working mothers. A lot of that has to do with choice. Families are choosing to have a parent at home and they're giving up some kinds of other luxuries to do that," he said. "And a lot of young mothers just aren't choosing to get married."
Another recent Pew survey found that Americans support stay-at-home moms: 60 percent say children are better off "when a parent stays home to focus on the family." Just 35 percent say children are just as well off with both parents working. Other results showed from 2010 to 2012, the number of stay-at-home mothers was 29 percent, three percentage points higher than in 2008, at the height of the recession; only 5 percent of married stay-at-home mothers with working husbands had at least a master's degree and family income higher than $75,000; and 6 percent of moms now say they're not working because they can't find a job, up from 1 percent in 2000.
As she loaded groceries into her car in Avon Park's Taqueria Merlo cafe and store Wednesday morning, Clara Arias said many of her friends in the Avon Park Hispanic community, as noted in the Pew study, are stay-at-home moms. Her husband, Genero, works in the citrus industry and she has two children, Genero Jr., 7, and Kevin, 3.
"It's just important to spend time with them and work on things together. It's better for them in the long run," she said. "I have a lot of friends who stay in the house with their children, like I do."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2012 American Community Survey,in Highlands County, an estimated 24,000 females 20 to 64 years old have children under 18 and 22 percent of them are either unemployed or not currently in the labor force.
Larry Moore of Sebring, who has a 5-year-old daughter, Lyric, said his wife, Rachel, is one of them: a stay-at-home mother, mostly for educational reasons. As the directors of Moore Performing Arts, he said Lyric is home-schooled by his wife and the results of the Pew surveys didn't surprise him on the nation or local levels.
"For us, we do a lot of hands-on activities, it's an issue of schooling," he said. "Mostly, it's practical. From a dad's point of view, it's smarter for one of us to just stay home and take care of the kid, then we have no childcare issues."