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.   

She writes, in another passage, that "there really is only one kind of equality -- it precedes all the emotional hullabaloo -- and it's economic. If you can't pay your own rent, you are not an adult." It makes as much sense to say that you're not an adult if you can't cook your own dinner, iron your own shirts, or help your own child with their homework, therefore men in families that have divided labor along traditional gender lines are not in fact adults. There is a difference between having the capacity to do something like pay rent or perform household chores and literally doing it.

That brings us to part of Wurtzel's argument that maps onto electoral politics. Here it is in her words:

I don't want everyone to live like me, but I do expect educated and able-bodied women to be holding their own in the world of work. Because here's what happens when women go shopping at Chanel and get facials at Tracy Martyn when they should be wage-earning mensches: the war on women happens.

Failing as a feminist is a unique problem of the wealthy, but consequences impact women all the way down the line. It happens that most women -- and men -- are living feminist lives because of economic necessity, whether they mean to or not. Most families are kind of like Sarah Palin's was before she made her pit-bull star turn: lots of kids and both mom and dad have to bring in what money they can. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 nearly 71 percent of women with children under 18 worked. Most mothers have jobs because they need or want the money and fulfillment; only in rare cases are they driven by glory.

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. 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. In any case, having forgotten everything but the lotus position, these women are the reason their husbands think all women are dumb, and I don't blame them. As it happens, fewer than 5 percent of the CEO's of Fortune 500 companies, 16 percent of corporate executives, and 17 percent of law partners are female. The men, the husbands of the 1 percent, are on trading floors or in office complexes with other men all day, and to the extent that they see anyone who isn't male it's pretty much just secretaries and assistants. And they go home to...whatever. What are they supposed to think? They pay gargantuan American Express bills and don't know why or what for.

Then they give money to Mitt Romney.

This is highly questionable analysis for numerous reasons.

1) It just isn't true that male professionals today are only interacting with women who are secretaries or assistants, even if women aren't equally represented at the top of firms. And there is no reason to presume, as Wurtzel seems to, that female secretaries are stupid and reflect poorly on women as a class, nor that men with stay-at-home wives are more likely to regard their wives unfavorably (or be mystified as to their spending, or handle the family checkbook).

2) The so-called "war on women," which largely concerns abortion policy, isn't an area of politics that is particularly driven by political donations. It is a wedge issue that appeals to Republicans because a large part of its socially conservative base feels very strongly that abortion is murder. 

3) Insofar as rich men with stay-at-home wives are giving to Republicans, the vast majority are doing so for reasons other than social conservatism, as is evident in GOP primaries, when business friendly candidates attract most of the big money donations while social conservatives scrimp. And the idea that lots of rich men are steering their political contributions based on the degree of respect they have for their wives or women generally is totally unsupported and highly dubious.

4) No data is presented to back up the supposition that the political donations of "1 percenter" families with wives that don't work are disproportionately flowing to Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama. At minimum, there are lots of wealthy families in the finance, entertainment and legal industries that tend to give to Democrats, especially in Los Angeles and New York City, the locales the author cites.

5) Insofar as Romney is getting money from families with stay-at-home moms, it's largely because lots of Mormon families choose traditional divisions of labor and support Romney in large numbers.

Stepping back a bit, let's imagine an alternate reality where wealthy men really were so disdainful of stay-at-home moms, including their own wives, that they were deliberately funding a "war on women" as a result. Would the proper feminist response really be haranguing those women into getting jobs so that rich men would respect them more and thus cease funding the "war"?   

The degree to which many Americans, including some feminists, conflate value contributed to society with wages earned is astonishing, and although this pathology extends far beyond the debate over child-rearing, one effect is for people to overvalue various kinds of professional work and to undervalue child-rearing. "Did Romney actually tell his wife that her job was more important than his?" Wurtzel writes. "So condescending. If he thought that, he'd be doing it."

Now, none of us is in a position to rigorously make a comparative assessment of Mitt Romney's contributions in business and government and Ann Romney's contributions to the lives of her five sons. But it is surely plausible that she did more good. Imagine, hypothetically, that Romney's tenure as governor of Massachusetts was a net neutral for the state, and that while he created some value in business, much of his wealth derived from restructuring companies in ways that better gamed a flawed tax code. Meanwhile, imagine that Ann Romney instilled in her five sons better than average empathy, work ethic, moral uprightness, ability to delay gratification, and capacity for personal happiness, qualities that caused each to lead happier, more productive, more generous lives than they otherwise would have, and to pass on those qualities to their own children.

Whose contribution to the world was more important?

You'd think a feminist who thinks Mitt Romney is engaged in a "war on women" -- who thinks his role in public life is malign -- would be especially inclined to give the edge to Ann Romney. But nope.

GDP is evidently her bottom line. 

It thrills me that my fiance, who I'll marry in October, already has and will continue to have a highly successful, fulfilling career, and than women of my generation generally have that opportunity in ways that my mother's and grandmother's generation didn't. I'm equally thrilled that women (or men) for whom staying home is more fulfilling and better for their families can make that choice, as my mom did, and anyone who presumes they're contributing less to society than their working counterparts has a more inflated sense of the importance of career than I do. If I ever find myself a stay-at-home dad, I'll not doubt for even a moment that success raising good citizens with a capacity for personal happiness would rank as my finest achievement (though I believe working parents are also perfectly capable of being successful parents).

There is no value in the pernicious notion that either working moms or stay-at-home moms are "better," for that term makes no sense as a general proposition. Certain arrangements are superior for some families and individuals; other arrangements are better for others. If anything, society benefits from a diversity of arrangements being tried all at once, both because variety is more conducive to fulfilling diverse individuals, and because stay-at-home parents and working parents can likely learn something from their analogs using a somewhat different model.

The notion, implicit in Wurzel's piece, that men and women should set aside the work arrangements that best suit their families in order to further an ideological agenda, or to skew political contributions made by rich men, is a rather extreme example of unduly obsessing over American politics. And the strange presumption that rich men funding a "war on women" would change their political giving habits if only more rich women participated in the work force is unfounded.  


*The uncompensated labor of stay-at-home moms often extends far beyond household chores and child rearing. At my elementary school, parents volunteered to run traffic before and after school, to supervise the kids at lunch, and to chaperone field trips. The camp for developmentally disabled kids where I volunteered during high school was staffed partly by stay-at-home moms volunteering their time, my mom among them. The connection between "soccer moms" and youth athletics is presumably obvious. All of these functions and many others could and would be done by paid employees if not for volunteers, but using Wurtzel's metrics of work and value none of this uncompensated labor counts for anything.  

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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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