Tom Smart, Deseret News
Danette Gray, like many Utah moms, stays at home in West Jordan with her sons Zachary, left, and Chance.

Zachary Gray is calmly driving a plastic motorcycle across the carpet, engrossed, it seems, in making motor noises with his lips.

But then his mother looks away.

Danette Gray doesn't have time to protest before the 3-year-old has bounced out the door of her West Jordan home and is loping, gleefully, across his parents' well-manicured lawn. "This is why I have a lock on the door," says a breathless Gray as she lugs the little boy back indoors. "Zach's a little escape artist."

The stay-at-home mom gets tired sometimes of chasing the little tyke around all day but not often. Reading children's books, playing cars and cleaning up spit-up is the career Gray has dreamed of since she was a little girl.

"It was just born in me," she says.

Gray is not alone in Utah. With just 53 percent of married mothers in the workforce, Utah has the highest percent of stay-at-home moms in the country. But as a 38-year-old, middle-class white woman, Gray doesn't fit the national profile for the job, based on a new U.S. Census Bureau report titled "America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2007."

In a first-ever analysis of stay-at-home moms, the U.S. Census Bureau found that, nationally, career mothers are more likely to be younger, Hispanic and living in poverty. In Utah, however, demographers report stay-at-home moms, though still typically younger, are simply more likely to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"This is Mormon culture region," said University of Utah research economist Pam Perlich. "The reason we have more moms staying home is not because we have more Hispanic women, it's because we have more Mormon women."

The LDS Church, in its 1995 "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," announced that mothers are "primarily responsible for the nurture of their children."

Cami McQuiston, a 35-year-old mother of four, interpreted that guidance as, "be a mom, first and foremost." She dropped out of college after she started having children.

"We've always been taught that being at home is good for your children," said the Kaysville mother, adding that her decision was also heavily influenced by her own experience growing up with a working mother.

"Maybe someday I'd like to have a career," she said, "but not while my children are young."

National data indicates many stay-at-home moms don't work because they lack the education or skills necessary to secure a job. For most Utah women, though, that's not true, said Cheryl Wright, chair of the family and consumer studies department at the University of Utah.

"In our state you see women staying out of the labor force because they can afford it," she said. "This is a conscious decision."

According to a department survey, the majority of the female students in Wright's college — which produces the second-largest graduating class at the U.— are planning to stay home with their children after graduation.

"Being a full-time mother is more accepted and supported here," Wright said.

Even in Utah, though, women are bombarded with conflicting messages about their role in society.

Women are told if they stay home with the children their "minds are going to rot," but they're also inundated with pressure to be there for their children, said Jenet Erickson, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

Religion clarifies this conflict, Erickson said. In her 2008 study, "Work, Family, and Individual Factors Associated With Mothers' Attaining Their Preferred Work-family Situations," she found that religion was a good predictor of whether or not women were happy in their work situation.

"I found this little group of Mormon women who were matched," she said. "They were doing what they said they wanted to be doing, which was staying at home."

Erickson's findings aren't true for 100 percent of women, however.

The traditional, Norman Rockwell-esque family where dad goes to work and mom stays home is an "eroding phenomenon," Perlich said. It's becoming harder and harder for families to survive on one income, regardless of their wishes.

Amanda Barlow, 29, has spent her whole marriage trying to balance her desire to stay home with financial concerns.

When her husband lost his job as a recruiter for Zions Bank three months ago, the mother of two was forced to go to work full-time even though she said she "would like to be at home."

"It's a changing world," she said. "We make things work."

Before Danette Gray adopted her two sons, she and her husband started a savings account in anticipation of a tight post-baby budget.

"We used to travel and go on dates and eat out," she said. "We gave all of that up for the kids."

Gray doesn't regret her decision to center her days around her little ones, though.

The other day, she said, Zachary discovered the "butt pockets" on his pants. He was pretty pumped about it.

"I don't want to miss things like that," she said. "I laughed all day."

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com