A neighbor and I were sitting on a park bench, watching our children play, when we got talking about the perennial issue of housework: all that thankless toil that takes hours out of your life you might have spent writing a great novel, or at least reading one. “I used to feel resentful about it,” my neighbor said. “But then I thought about my mother. She had eight kids, and her house always looked great. That was her art. She had such a beautiful life.”
Spending a lot of time caring for your children hardly makes people into more narrow, self-interested citizens.
Before you start writing that outraged email, let me add: that neighbor is a part-time stay-at-home dad. His wife, a corporate lawyer, puts in long hours, and doesn’t have much time for cooking, cleaning, and daycare pick-up. He is a photographer whose flexible schedule allows him to be the on-the-scene parent weekdays. So not only does he proudly support his wife’s career, he genuinely admires his mom, and is following in her footsteps.
How’s that for a happy Mother’s Day sentiment?
I know a handful of other couples that have similar arrangements. When they had kids, the mother’s career took precedence, and the dad scaled back to spend more time at home. Their choices are both familiar to me and heartwarming. When I was a kid, it was my dad who worked from home, made breakfast and packed my lunch, drove me to basketball games, planted the garden, took care of the house and, periodically, lost it with me for not doing my share of cleaning up. This model has allowed me not to feel like a complete retrograde as I sit here at home, balancing my part-time hours with care for my three young children.
In the seemingly never-ending debate about women’s place in society, I am grateful to these male role models who value “women’s work” so much, they freely chose it for themselves.
Salary.com recently did an analysis of stay-at-home motherhood, and came up with a market salary figure of $138,095. A piece in the San Francisco Chronicle  that reported the figure included debate on the value of low-versus high-income stay at home moms and how dads stack up. It’s not such an enlightening discussion..
The problem is, in our society, where making money is so overvalued, writers on both the left and the right unthinkingly present it as the true measure of an individual’s worth.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times , Linda Hirshman, author of “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World,” lamented the recently released data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that mothers seem to be opting out of the workforce after all (there has been heated debate on whether the “opt-out revolution” is real or fake). According to the report, there are 4 percent fewer married mothers with preschool aged children–and 6 percent fewer with infants–in the workforce today than there were in 1997. And that decline is spread evenly across educational levels. “Should we care if women leave the work force?” Hirshman writes. “Yes, because participation in public life allows women to use their talents and to powerfully affect society.”
Leaving aside for a moment Hirshman’s other main point: that women take a major financial hit when they drop out or scale back their work to care for children, take another look at the assumption here.
Since when is paid work the same thing as “participation in public life”? When it comes to community activism, volunteerism, and just plain neighborliness, it is the stay-at-home parents in my neighborhood who are the backbone of our shared “public life.” And the values those parents have–I am thinking particularly of the vocal and organized PTA parents I know–are liberal, generous, pro-public-school, and generally community-minded. Of course, many working parents also contribute to important public causes. But spending a lot of time caring for your children hardly makes people into more narrow, self-interested citizens. In my own case I would say it’s just the opposite.
The other rather breathtaking aspect of Hirshman’s op-ed is that it doesn’t even touch on the issue of the availability of quality child care. Parents of infants and preschoolers are making tough decisions about how to find the best care for the people they love most in the world. Some of them are choosing (gasp!) to make less money.
Hirshman wants to push more married women to go to work by changing the tax code so they can keep more of their earnings. At least, unlike welfare reform, it’s not punitive. But I doubt it will make much difference.
More flexible hours, more family-friendly workplaces, more parental leave, and more high-quality child care would do a lot more to take the pressure off families and make child-rearing a public rather than an agonizingly private responsibility. Those are better answers.
For that to happen, as Americans, we need to think more about what it takes not just to feel successful as individuals, but to live what my neighbor describes as a “beautiful life”–one that places the well being of our children and families ahead of pushing everyone to spend as much time as possible at work.
Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs.
© 2007 The Progressive