The messages we send when moms stay home
By Gretchen Ritter
Tuesday, July 06, 2004
"Well, I could have just stayed home and baked cookies." In the firestorm that followed her comment, Hillary Rodham Clinton learned that you should never deny the virtues of stay-at-home motherhood.
Nowadays, the candidates' wives prove their maternal merit by competing in a cookie cook-off every four years. In the decade or so since this line was uttered, women's rights advocates have grown silent on the topic of motherhood. Few dare to criticize the new stay-at-home mom movement recently discussed on this page in the Austin American-Statesman.
It is time to have an honest conversation about what is lost when women stay home. In a nation devoted to motherhood and apple pie, what could possibly be wrong with staying home to care for your children?
Several things, I think.
It denies men the chance to be involved fathers. This is a loss for them and a loss for their children. What does it mean when fathers are denied the opportunity to nurture their kids in ways that are as important as their work? What do the children miss when they don't have fathers changing their diapers, picking them up from school, coaching soccer, making breakfast or dinner and doing homework with them? On both sides, the answer is too much.
Women who stay at home also lose out — they lose a chance to contribute as professionals and community activists. Parenting is an important social contribution. But we need women in medicine, law, education, politics and the arts. It is not selfish to want to give your talents to the broader community — it is an important part of citizenship to do so, and it is something we should expect of everyone.
Full-time mothering is also bad for children. It teaches them that the world is divided by gender. This sends the wrong message to our sons and daughters. I do not want our girls to grow up thinking they must marry and have children to be successful, or that you can only be a good mother if you give up your work.
Nor do I want boys to think that caring for families is women's work and making money is men's work. Our sons and daughters should grow up thinking that raising and providing for a family is a joint enterprise among all the adults in the family.
The new stay-at-home motherhood movement parallels the movement to create the "perfect" child. It's not just that mothers are home with their children; they are engaged with their children constantly so they will "develop" properly. Many middle-class parents demand too much of their children. We enroll them in soccer, religious classes, dance, art, piano, French lessons, etc., placing them on the quest for continuous self-improvement.
Many of these youngsters end up stressed out. Children should think it is all right to just hang out and be kids sometimes. They should learn that parents have interests separate from their lives as parents. And we should all learn that mothers are not fully responsible for who their children become — so are fathers, neighbors, friends, the extended family and children themselves.
Finally, the stay-at-home mother movement is bad for society. It tells employers that women who marry and have children are at risk of withdrawing from their careers, and that men who marry and have children will remain fully focused on their careers, regardless of family demands. Both lessons reinforce sex discrimination.
This movement also privileges certain kinds of families, making it harder for others. The more stay-at-home mothers there are, the more schools and libraries will neglect the needs of working parents, and the more professional mothers, single mothers, working-class mothers and lesbian mothers will feel judged for their failure to be in a traditional family and stay home their children.
By creating an expectation that mothers could and should stay home, we lose sight of the fact that most parents do work — and that they need affordable, high quality child care, after-school enrichment programs and family leave policies that allow mothers and fathers to nurture their children without giving up work.
Raising children is one of the most demanding and rewarding of jobs. It is also a job that should be shared, between parents and within communities, for the sake of us all.
Ritter is director of the Center for Women's and Gender Studies at UT and an associate professor of government and women studies.
Here are some of the response letters. The one from the woman who wrote about how those of us who grew up in the seventies were actively discouraged from caring about raising our children really resonated with me. Here is op-ed piece in same paper in response from woman who gave up her academic position in favor of spending time with her family.
My god, don't newspaper sites realize than when they keep getting readers who live at 123 Fuck Off Drive in Fuck Off Town and their telephone numbers are (123)456-7890, they should JUST GIVE IT UP? No, apparently not. Oh well, if you ever want to read the Austin American Statesman, the first name is "floater" the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and the password is "reader."
PS thank you Charles for introducing me to spam.la. I love it.
PPS I know most newspaper sites, if they ask for a username and password, you can do "invisible-city" as the user name and "reader" as the password. Does anyone know if there's a similar for when they ask for an email address?</small>