In Defense of Stay-at-Home Moms

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Yes, they do real work. The men in their lives know it. And they've nothing to do with the so-called "war on women."

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In a widely read piece published last week in The Atlantic online, New York City attorney and author Elizabeth Wurtzel makes a number of provocative arguments about feminism, class and politics that denigrate stay-at-home moms. Its title, "1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible," along with its subhed, "being a mother isn't a real job -- and the men who run the world know it," sum up parts of the piece, and its arguments go even farther. It surprises me not at all that Rush Limbaugh spoke at length about it on the air, for if there were a "war" on stay-at-home moms, as he'd like his audience to believe, Wurtzel would be on its front lines.

She'd be taking aim at women like my mother, for though my family has never belonged to the 1 percent or "the 1 percent," my mom left the work force for a number of years to raise my sister and I, returning to it when we were in high school. As an attendee of Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, I've had occasion to interact with a lot of women who chose a similar traditionalist path. An e-mailer familiar with my background asked me if I felt outraged on their behalf, but as I see it, Wurtzel's notion of who stay-at-home moms are is so far removed from the reality of most women in the stay-at-home category that few of her blows even land. "To be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege, and most of the housewives I have ever met -- none of whom do anything around the house -- live in New York City and Los Angeles, far from Peoria," she writes in a characteristic passage. "Only in these major metropolises are there the kinds of jobs in finance and entertainment that allow for a family to live luxe on a single income."

The generalization from "families I have met in New York and L.A." is always a risky proposition. In this case, according to a 2009 data release from the Census Bureau, 75 percent of stay-at-home moms live in households where family income is less than $100,000 per year -- such families, after all, rely on only one salary -- and families with stay-at-home moms are, not surprisingly, on average poorer than those where both parents have incomes. The states of Utah and Arizona have the highest percentage of families where one parent stays home. And insofar as the states of New York and California have above-average numbers of stay-at-home moms, it is largely because "Stay-at-home mothers were more likely to be Hispanic than non-stay-at-home mothers," and "stay- at-home mothers were more likely to be foreign born." 

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I grew up in Orange County, Calif., a more diverse place than you'd think from its portrayal on television. It includes largely white, very affluent cities like Newport Beach, where I attended Our Lady Queen of Angels elementary school; cities like Costa Mesa, my hometown, where Latinos make up roughly 30 percent of the population; and places like Santa Ana, a Latino enclave, and Garden Grove, which is 38 percent Asian (largely Vietnamese) and 37 percent Latino. The Real Housewives of Orange County notwithstanding, there were a very few such unrepresentative families there, where the stay-at-home mom wasn't doing much work or had multiple domestic helpers cooking, cleaning, nannying, and driving the kids wherever they needed to go. I suspect the vast majority of moms from all the demographic groups I've mentioned would take issue with this claim:

Being a mother isn't really work. Yes, of course, it's something -- actually, it's something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle... But let's face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it's a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation).

This is highly questionable economic analysis. Anyone can cook food. Are "chef" and "short order cook" not jobs? Anyone can clean clothes. When I take my shirts to be laundered, is the man who washes and irons them not working? Anyone can change their oil. What of the guys at JiffyLube? Anyone can do their own taxes. Are H&R Block accountants just engaged in "a part of life"?

There is a strain of feminism that has insistently pointed out the economic value of uncompensated domestic labor, and if there were any doubt about that theory, it was resolved when women started joining the work force en masse, and families with two-wage earners received a hefty bill at the end of each month showing just how much child care, cleaning and food prep cost. There is, of course, a lot more to the job stay-at-home moms do than these domestic chores. But the chores alone are labor intensive, valuable, and performed as formal  jobs by many in the labor force.

Here's a useful thought experiment that gets at some of the additional value being that parents, stay-at-home or not, add. Imagine that you have a two-year-old child, $100 million in the bank, and are unexpectedly sentenced to an 20-year prison term. For the sake of this hypothetical, you've got 6 months in which to interview and hire someone for a 20 year position, and you are somehow assured that whoever you hire will stick with the paid job of raising your child. He or she will be responsible for everything from household chores to care-giving to informal tutoring to emotional support to discipline to shaping morals and values.     

What sort of employee would you hire? Would you pay minimum wage or higher? Six figures? Would your caregiver make more or less than the prison guard supervising you in jail? Would you prefer someone with a high school diploma? A college diploma? In what percentile of intelligence, intellectual and emotional, would you want them to be? Would you do a more thorough job vetting the eventual caregiver of your child, or the lawyer who represented you in your criminal case? Who would you regard as having the more important job, the caregiver or your lawyer?

Who would have the harder job?

The scenario I've described never actually happens in the real world, but a related calculation is quite common. When my mother and father were dating, both at some point asked themselves, "Would this person be a good parent?" For many men and women alike, that is a major factor in the spouse they choose. And although Wurtzel writes about families with stay-at-home moms as if the husbands are mystified as to the arrangement, asserting that their wives go shopping at luxury stores while "they pay gargantuan American Express bills and don't know why or what for," the reality is that the vast majority of couples, even in wealthy enclaves, deliberate long and hard over the working arrangements that best suit their family circumstances.  

That is because, consistent with the laws in most states, they see marriage as an equal partnership. Wutzel writes as if she's totally unaware of that reality. "Let's please be serious grown-ups: real feminists don't depend on men," she writes. "Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own." Most married couples would reply that husbands and wives depend on one another, and function as a team. My mother, who worked before having children, and later returned to the work force, is an extremely capable person. Although her earning potential was perhaps always lower than my father's by virtue of differences in the degrees they've earned (he's got a masters degree), there has never been a time when she couldn't have secured a good job. Experience indicates she'd be quickly promoted in any company. To describe her as dependent on my father for income is accurate only insofar as my parents decided together that she'd forgo working, plus the wage premium she'd gain from those lost years of work experience, to raise my sister and me, and to do other uncompensated labor*. Given that arrangement, most feminists would be understandably outraged if my father claimed that his entire paycheck was rightfully his, rather than shared income. The legal recognition of community property was a major, rightfully celebrated feminist victory. By Wutzel's logic, it should never have happened.   

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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