PAUSING AND THE MOMMY WARS
In 1992 when her husband was running for office, Hillary Clinton was asked to defend why she didn’t leave her career to care for her daughter. She said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.” Her words became a rallying cry for those on both sides of the debate about mothers and work. The notion of “staying home to bake cookies” was anathema to traditional feminists who were focused on advancing female economic empowerment. The notion of not putting your children first was equally offensive to those women who believed there was more at stake in life than just careers.
At the time, Hillary Clinton was fighting against the widely held belief that children are best cared for by a stay-at-home mother. In the 1990s, most Americans shared that belief,98 but the Great Recession has had an indelible effect on our attitudes toward mothers in the paid workforce. Before 2009, 43 percent of adults said the ideal situation for a young child was to have a mother who doesn’t work outside the home. Today, only 30 percent of adults report they believe that and most of those who do were born more than fifty years ago.
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Looked at another way, according to Pew Research Center, before 2007, only 21 percent of mothers reported that their ideal situation would be to work full-time.99 By 2014, that number had jumped to 37 percent. For mothers who say they “don’t have enough to meet basic expenses,” 47 percent say the ideal situation is full-time work. But for those mothers who are married, only 23 percent say their ideal situation would be to work full-time. In other words, under-resourced mothers (whether married or single) want full-time work, but married women with resources would rather work part-time.
What does this have to do with pausing and the Mommy Wars? Well, it shows that the Mommy Wars isn’t really about being a stay-at-home mother versus being a “working” mother. And it definitely isn’t about what’s best for the kids. The Mommy Wars is about class and how we, as a country, don’t support caregiving.
How do we know this? Because our definition of good mothering varies depending on class. For under-resourced women, being a good mother means working outside the home. We revile “welfare queens” and expect them to get out into the workplace so they can “get off the dole.” These mothers, like men, are told that being a good parent is being a provider. When they leave the paid workforce, we don’t want to support them, so we call them lazy and bad mothers.
The Mommy Wars is about class and how we, as a country, don’t support caregiving.
Meanwhile, women who have resources are told that a good mother is one who is primarily responsible for her children. In fact, a recent study revealed that we support mothers who “must” work in their role as “working” mothers, but we are deeply skeptical of mothers who have the financial resources and who choose to work.
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