NEW YORK (AP) -- It seems to happen every few months: a new book or study fuels the "Mommy Wars," the intense debate over whether moms should stay home with the kids or work outside the home. Each time there's spirited talk, angst, and some guilt from mothers who fear they're doing the wrong thing.
MomSpace co-founders Erica Rubach, right, and Joani Reisen at their offices in Drexel Hill , Pennsylvania.
Now the guilt seems actually tangible. In an eye-catching national survey from the Pew Research Center released last week, full-time working mothers rated themselves slightly lower as parents than those who stay home or work part-time.
And that was even more striking when viewed along with the survey's primary finding -- that fully 60 percent of working mothers now say part-time work is their ideal rather than full-time, compared to 48 percent a decade ago.
What does it all mean? Four decades after the feminist movement laid claim to equal footing for women in the workplace, are these findings and others like them a tacit admission that in the end, it's really not possible to have it all?
For Erica Rubach, a 32-year-old mother of two, the findings weren't a surprise. A year ago, she felt she couldn't keep her head above water, though to others her life might have seemed ideal: two young kids and a job she loved as director of marketing and business development at a television station.
"But I knew there just wasn't room for both in my life," she says. "It was killing me."
So she left her job, with its 60-70 hour weeks, and with fellow mother Joani Reisen founded MomSpace, a networking site devoted to matching mothers with services in their communities. The two now work on their own schedules. "Recently Erica's daughter, Maya, had her birthday, and I said to her, 'this is the coolest thing,' says Reisen. 'You got to spend the day canoeing with your daughter!"
The women count themselves among the ranks of so-called "Mompreneurs," moms who've begun their own parent-oriented businesses to serve other moms plus have the flexibility they need for their own young families. They've also given other mothers part-time work; they've hired 60 people, mostly women, to sell ads on commission.
To both, "having it all" is a question of how you define it. "You can't be a part-time vice president," says Reisen. "And maybe you can't attend every PTA meeting. But I do believe you can have it all, in bits and pieces."
She thinks the trend among mothers "opting out" of the work force is a natural reaction to the previous generation. "I had a single mother who worked full-time," says Reisen, 41, "and I missed having her at home." For Rubach, "it has to do with how my generation was raised. Our moms were hardworking but they also missed out."
Such explanations trouble author Linda Hirshman, who has forcefully argued that mothers are wasting their potential when they shun the work force to care exclusively for their kids. Hirshman, author of last year's "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," says it's clear that increasing numbers of women are working less or not at all -- and at all different strata of society.
And why? She attributes the trend largely to a "ramping up" of the job of motherhood, by a culture that expects women to be super-moms, perfect at everything. "If you want to be Martha Stewart at home AND president of the PTA, well, then you're right, you can't do it!" says Hirshman. "So you have two ways out of the problem. You don't buy into the madness -- or you quit your job."
But quitting your job -- or switching to a much lower-paying one -- can be a recipe for financial disaster, argues Leslie Bennetts, author of the recent book "The Feminine Mistake."
"Many women romanticize the stay-at-home life, but most don't realize the consequences," says Bennetts. "The reality is that to give up your career and depend on someone else to support you is a very high-stakes gamble -- for women AND their children."
For Bennetts, the problem with the Pew survey is that it asks women about their feelings but not their experiences. "Part-time work, for many women, is an ideal that is out of reach, because the workplace is not offering them what they want," she says.
That's borne out by the study itself. Though it might be nice to think women's increased desire for part-time work is fueled by increased flexibility among employers and hence more opportunity, project director Paul Taylor says the survey found otherwise: The percentage of working mothers who actually work part-time has stayed stable since 1997, at 24 percent.
"What you have is an increasing number of women expressing a preference for something that just over a quarter of them do," said Taylor. "There's a feeling that by and large the workplace has not accommodated a desire for part-time work."
So the problem for most women is that there's precious little middle ground between an exhausting juggling act and a risky trip down the off ramp, with only a vague hope of getting back in later. Deloitte, the professional services firm, is trying to offer up just such a middle ground with a new system called Mass Career Customization.
Under the system, now in a phased rollout, employees are allowed to dial up and dial down their professional commitment, depending on the stage of life they're at, says Cathy Benko, the executive who conceived the system.
"The problem with surveys like this is that they look at one point in time, versus a whole career," says Benko, Deloitte's managing principal of talent, who is herself a mother of two. Yes, she says, many moms with young kids -- some dads, too -- want to dial down. But later, when the kids are older, they'll often want to dial back up.
Dialing down may mean working fewer (or different) hours, getting less compensation or taking a slower track toward promotion. But it will be out in the open, and may keep valuable employees with the company. And they will feel less guilty over doing what everyone does at one point or another -- sneaking out for that PTA meeting or first-grade violin performance.
"Wouldn't it be better to just be able to say, I can't make that 10 a.m. meeting because I'm the head of the PTA?" Benko asks. "Why sneak?"
Though the concept isn't gender-based, it's clear that solutions like these would most benefit women, who almost a half-century after the birth of the feminist movement still bear the brunt of managing the home.
Kim Savino, a 42-year-old mother of two with a business degree, has little regret over leaving demanding work in the hospitality industry when her second child was born, leaving her husband as the breadwinner. "One of us had to do it," says Savino, of Downigntown, Pennsylvania. "That was me."
Now, she happily does part-time sales work for MomSpace, the company started by Rubach and Reisen. But she acknowledges that mothers like her are always torn.
The development where she lives is evenly divided between stay-at-home moms and working ones. The stay-at-home moms often say to her of her part-time work: "How'd you find that?"
And the full-time working moms often say, with envy: "I can't believe you're home today."