Saturday, May 12, 2007


I suppose a post on the theme of maternity is de rigeur for today, so I've dug up (not difficult, as the press has been saturating us with Mom-stories for the past week at least) a few articles that may be of interest.

A new book ironically titled The Feminine Mistake has been getting some reviews recently. I haven't read it yet, but based on the reviews it seems its premise is that women take substantial risk in giving up paid employment in order to be full-time mothers. Below is an excerpt from a review:

"Something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives," the late Betty Friedan wrote in "The Feminine Mystique," her groundbreaking 1963 book attacking the idea that a husband and children were all a woman needs for fulfillment.

That book helped launch the modern women's movement. But more than four decades later, writer Leslie Bennetts is trying to sound a very similar message. In "The Feminine Mistake" -- the title's no accident -- she argues that many young mothers have forgotten Friedan's message, embracing a 21st-century version of the 1950s stay-at-home ideal that could imperil their economic future as well as their happiness.

Needless to say, the book isn't going down smoothly with everyone -- especially mothers who've chosen to stay home with their children.
Bennetts says she never intended to issue the latest salvo in the "Mommy Wars"... she's surprised by the reaction.
Bennetts says she merely wanted to present factual evidence that a woman takes great risks when she gives up economic self-sufficiency -- risks she may not be thinking of during those early years of blissful, exhausting parenting. Divorce. A husband losing his job. A husband dying. All of those, Bennetts warns, could be catastrophic for a woman and her children. And if the woman decides she'll get back to her career later, once the kids are ready? Stop dreaming, Bennetts says -- a woman takes a huge salary hit after a relatively short time of being absent from the work force -- that is, if she can get back in at all.

Reactions from some of those stay-at-home moms--including blogger Jen Singer of MommaSaid (who acknowledges the economic risk, but feels Bennetts neglects the value of child-rearing,) --follow. Likewise does a statement of support from an employed mother who was glad for the second income when her husband was injured on the job, but also feels outside employment conveys benefits beyond financial security:

[Anita] Jevne always enjoyed having a world outside the home to be part of. "You're part of a community," she says. "You're giving something." That's the second message Bennetts says she's trying to impart -- that there's a crucial sense of self-worth to be gained outside the home.

Bennetts also points out that affluence affects who can and who can't "afford" to stay at home, suggesting that it is a sign of wealth. Blogger Singer, above, objects that her characterization of at-home moms is limited to and by this view, though Bennetts argues otherwise:
"The benefits of work were really clear at all levels," she says.

Bennetts seems unsure of why she has generated such a stir:
"Women are so defensive about their choices that many seem to have closed their minds entirely."

As employed women don't seem to be the ones arguing with her, one has to conclude that the closed-minded, defensive types come from among the stay-at-homes --thank you very much, Ms. Bennetts. I think she overrates that "sense of self-worth" that is found only in the workplace, moreover, while forgetting that self-worth is a thing that comes from within, when one knows one has done good work, never mind where.

I am actually of two minds about this controversy, though my status as a 20-year veteran of the hearthside might lead some to wonder why. The answer is that I am --ought to be-- well aware of the risk involved. It is true that women who give up paid employment run a certain risk of being suddenly left in precarious circumstances; I've seen it happen for all the reasons cited above. It is also true that it makes little economic sense for a woman who has five or six figures invested in a college or graduate school education to refrain from recouping that investment. Were simple economics the only factor at play, Bennetts would get little argument from me.

The problem is, if there are going to be kids--and last time I checked that was at least a reasonable likelihood for most couples in the 16-40 age range--somebody's gotta raise them. They won't raise themselves. While that job does not always fall to the distaff side of the household, it generally does. That lactation thing could be a factor, and there's little chance anyone will hear me arguing against that.

So, assume that you have a couple, and some kids. They have a choice: farm out the child care and go on about their business, or make some arrangements for at least one parent to be in charge of that detail at all times. Is this going to be an economic loss? Yes and no. As the authors of a book I read years ago (I think the title was What's a Smart Woman Like You Doing at Home?) maintained, there are inherent costs in working that reduce, and in the case of a small salary, may render negligible, the income from a second job. There is day care, first and foremost (and if you think the ability to stay home is closely tied to household income, please note the disparity in day-care arrangements available to the affluent, and those available to the hourly wage earner.) There are transportation, food, and in most jobs, work apparel costs. There are some tax disadvantages as well. So while it is probable that dual employment holds some economic advantages for the family besides that of buffer in the event of unexpected setback, these advantages may actually --in strict economic terms-- end up being less than you'd expect.

Now, factor in the non-financial variables to the problem. There are the earnest desire of the parents to do a good job raising children, the desire for family closeness that can be disrupted when parents and children don't see each other at all for more than half their waking hours, and the desire of parents to bring up their children according to their own lights. (A few months ago I happened across a blogger who complained bitterly that her day-care provider had banned "gun" play. While I don't see brandishing a stick and yelling "bang! bang!" as harmful or unsual in a little boy, either, I did find myself put off by her apparent failure to realize that the day-care provider had a perfect right, where health and safety of her charges were not affected, to make the rules in her own home. I also wondered why, if she found the situation so intolerable, she didn't just vote with her feet.)

There is a certain convenience inherent in having one parent at home as well--somebody is always available for medical appointments,school meetings, afterschool activities, and minor emergencies. If the employed spouse's job requires long or irregular hours (as has been the case in my house for years) the value of a full-time at-home parent (who may also in that case assume additional household jobs that might have fallen to the employed spouse under less demanding work conditions)increases exponentially.

While there may be risks for the woman who eschews paid employment for the nursery, these risks can be mitigated. I can't guarantee my hubby won't accidentally wander into the path of a truck tomorrow, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't skip town with the cutie in the next cubicle tomorrow. Raising the children we've brought into the world is a team commitment; reneging on that responsibility--or cutting off the nonearner unprepared-- would be supremely dishonorable.

I don't accept the claim that only affluent women can afford to stay home, either. While compared to, say, most of the third world, the most modest American households are affluent, many at-home mothers I have known have not been, by American standards. Many Americans have become so accustomed to having a high standard of living that they have lost all concept of the difference between "needs" and "wants." We are not affluent by a stretch, and we accepted a long time ago that some things and activities were superfluous if we were going to be able to keep me at home. Being at home doesn't invariably equal not generating income, furthermore. Providing child care is only one of a number of ways moms I've known have subsidized their "time off" and stayed in touch with the adult world. Others have taught music, done taxes, sold product, and written freelance magazine articles. Finally, while results may vary with the individual, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has always struck me as a particularly good reminder that taking a few years off to raise one's babies need not be a career-scuttler.

So, does Friedan's clarion call still ring true? I think it's a teensy bit overstated. Women have employment choices today, limited by their skills and personal ambitions. I doubt many women in our society accept homemaking as their lot in life with no recognition of the other possibilities out there. As for Bennett's concern that at-home mothers might not be considering the down side of their choice, I think that she underestimates their decision process. While career choices shouldn't be made blindly or with blatant disregard for economic realities, economics alone shouldn't govern life choices. We'd have an excess of miserable and incompetent doctors, lawyers, and financiers if they did. Mothers, and sometimes fathers, can make a reasoned decision to set aside the paycheck in deference to nobler pursuits. It's foolish to dismiss that option out of hand while the young of our species continue to need the intensive long-term care essential to functioning in our complex society.

The Mom Salary Calculator works out the annual salary, adjusted for location, that a full-time at-home mother would earn if paid the going rate for the various jobs she does. The 10-job list actually missed a few I could have claimed this week alone, having worn by turns my 7 Santini Brothers Movers hat (when I hauled Hon. Daughter #1's stuff back from college), My Standardized Test Administrator Hat, and my Greyhound Busman's hat (when I subsequently hauled Hon. Daughter home).

It's been said of the gangsters of various ethnicities that the common denominator among them was that they all loved their Mommas. This AP story would seem to bear that out.

The strange, sad tale of the woman who launched Mothers' Day, from May's Smithsonian magazine.

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Blogger The unconventional mother said...

"So, assume that you have a couple, and some kids. They have a choice: farm out the child care and go on about their business..." And it rarely happens like that because you can give up some of the "day care", but you do have the night care and the sick care etc...

I think it is sick that someone would give a woman a hard time for staying at home. The book "Maternal Desire" has a good section about childcare. We have to take into account women's feelings and not just their economic capabilities. Women very often want to be close to their is often heart breaking to think about someone else taking care of the child that you love. To work outside the home is often to sacrifice those feelings of the closeness and the joy of the day to day.

If you have money perhaps you could afford to have a job where you can bring your child. There have been women that have successfully brought their children to work. Some offices have daycare centers on site and let mothers tend to children on breaks or when there is a crisis. But these are the exceptions to the rule.

So really it is those of us with more modest means who have fewer choices if we are to honor our want and our need to be close to our kids.

4:15 PM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Pardon the belated response; I've been laid low with a wicked cold!

Indeed, although as you can imagine I'll take the optimist's view that you can often work out a way to do what you want notwithstanding economics. A supportive work environment is as good as cash, if not better.

Of course I don't mean to discount the role of maternal instinct and the desire to be with one's babies in the decision to stay at home; as the main thrust of The Feminine Mistake was economic, however, I thought I'd stick mainly to that issue for the purpose of this post.

2:18 PM  

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