Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Throwing Mothers To The Wolves

Henry Farrell asks why the Mommy Wars (stay-at-home vs. working mothers) hurt so much - "why this is such a loaded and painful subject matter in the first place, for women who have made either choice."

So far, unfortunately, most of the answers he's getting are either located in the indvidual psyches of the mothers involved - insecurity, et cetera - or they blame outside agitators for injecting guilt and judgment into a situation where all choices are equally beneficial. I think both of those types of answers have a partial truth to them, but they leave out important systemic factors.

With few exceptions, the design and organization of the American workplace are still predicated on the assumption that each employed person has a back-up person who handles all the responsibilities of home and family. Similarly, the design and organization of the major American professions (medicine, law, academia) are still predicated on the assumption that one's twenties, and probably one's early thirties, will be spent working as many hours as possible. Prevailing theories of good parenting are far more time- and labor-intensive than the practices of our mothers. And meanwhile, unprecedented levels of economic instability, the shrinking social safety net, the higher incidence of divorce combined with the end of alimony, the spiraling costs of housing and higher education, and the stagnation of low-to-midrange wages mean that, for most Americans, the two-income household looks a lot more like a necessity than a lifestyle option.

These factors combine to place enormous pressure on families with young children. And mothers are told by our society, magnanimously, that feminism has bestowed upon us the "choice" to kludge together whatever solution to the problem we can manage on our own. And the stakes are enormous: the well-being of our children is entirely our responsibility, and every last detail of maternal behavior is presumed to have profound implications for our children's future and the future of society.

I've quoted before from Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels' book The Mommy Myth , which focuses on the ways in which children's developmental outcomes are seen as being entirely caused by individual parenting choices made by their mothers, for good or ill.
"First, the media warned mothers about the external threats to their kids from abductors and the like. Then the “family values” crowd made it clear that supporting the family was not part of the government’s responsibility. By the late 1980s, stories about welfare and crack mothers emphasized the internal threats to children from mothers themselves. And finally, the media brouhaha over the “Mommy Track” reaffirmed that businesses could not or would not budge much to accommodate the care of children. Together, and over time, these frameworks produced a prevailing common sense that only you, the individual mother, are responsible for your child’s welfare: The buck stops with you, period, and you’d better be a superstar."
Is it any wonder that women sometimes become defensive under these pressures? Is it any wonder that we sometimes cling rigidly to our chosen solutions, and strenuously avoid any suggestion that alternative paths have different advantages? Is it any wonder that it hurts to be told that we've made the wrong choice, especially by people who seem blind to the tradeoffs and compromises inherent in all the options?

Before I throw this open for general discussion, I want to be absolutely clear about one thing: I will not tolerate Mommy Warring in my comments section, and I will disemvowel attacks as necessary. In particular, I pre-emptively forbid the use of the following phrases, or variations thereof: "I didn't want someone else raising my kids," "I didn't want to waste my brain/education," any application of the term "warehouse" to daycare or "lazy/deadbeat/parasite" to mothers without paid employment, "why even have kids if...?", and, from the childfree, "why should the rest of us have to support your hobby?" If you simply must use one of those phrases to express yourself, please get your own blog. Thank you.