Working Mothers

(Photo by Flickr/CC user Peter Baker)

There are times when the valiant efforts of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem all seem to have been for naught. When “Democratic strategist” Hilary Rosen (who’s associated with no one’s campaign) remarked on CNN that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life,” she set off a storm of indignant responses. Everyone fell all over themselves to affirm that stay-at-home mothers know what it is to work. A chastened Hilary Rosen walked back her remarks and apologized to Ann Romney.

Now that the ruffled feathers have settled back down, can we calmly agree that yes, stay-at-home mothers work, but no, most American mothers are not at all like Ann Romney—or, while we’re at it, Michelle Obama?  “Working mothers” is a category that covers neither the likes of Mrs. Romney or Mrs. Obama, but instead means mothers who are in the labor force (well over 60 percent of mothers with children under 6, and over 75 percent of mothers with children between 6 and 17).

I don’t have any studies to refer to (gasp!), but common sense tells me that most mothers who work outside the home do so because they think their families need the income. Granted, some mothers work solely because they find fulfillment in having both a career and children, or because they simply want to get out of the home. But most mothers don’t think this way because most don’t have the luxury of thinking this way.

It needs spelling out that the work force of mothers, like the work force of fathers, is made up of the rich, the middle-class, and the poor, the highly educated and the semi-literate. It includes those who love their work, those who hate it, and those who are indifferent toward it. Although I doubt there are many mothers who would say this out loud, it even includes some for whom work is the highest fulfillment in life. It also includes those for whom work is difficult, wretched, disgusting, tedious, or just plain boring.

Were it not for the vexing matter that, for a variety of reasons, raising children remains primarily in the hands of women, none of this would matter. We’d simply be talking about men and women as equals, and there would be no greater social consequences associated with women working than with men working. Everyone would simply choose whether or not to work, or what work to do, according to a combination of individual preference, qualifications, economic opportunity, and, of course, necessity.

What I just said isn’t actually true. If all all working mothers were to become stay-at-home mothers, the consumer-driven economy we’ve built would tank. Where would households get the money to buy all the stuff we sell? In addition, nearly every household currently sits on debt that needs eventual repaying. If working mothers were to quit the workforce, we’d end up looking like Greece.

I’d like to talk a moment about the special class of highly educated mothers. When I was an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke, we consciously thought of ourselves as “uncommon women.” We were going to be the generation of women who used our smarts, our education, and our ambition to seamlessly sew together husbands, children, and careers. Not for us our mothers’ lives as homemakers riddled with holes of unfulfilled desire. Our mothers had raised their sons to go to college and then go on to a wonderful career. They raised their daughters to go to college and then use that education to catch a husband, have a family, and repeat the cycle. What was the purpose of a college education if it meant, in Groundhog Day fashion, repeating the lives of our stay-at-home mothers?

The stay-at-home mother Ann Romney would very much like to get the non-job job of First Lady, currently held by the stay-at-home mother Michelle Obama–a woman who gave up her high-powered, paying job as a lawyer to help her husband’s career. Both these women work hard outside the home. Neither offers guidance for working mothers.


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