The question of whose life is more luxurious, who is more selfish, who is lazier, etc., is a genuine distraction from truly important issues that affect all families.
Last month, Allison B. Carter posted a piece in the New York Times about her decision to be a stay-at-home mom. It’s not a “luxury,” she argued. Carter was countering the many people, often strangers, who felt inclined to comment upon her life path.
Predictably, the piece led to comments rife with debate: Who has it harder, stay-at-home moms or moms who work outside the home? This, in spite of Carter’s statement: “I am not here to argue who works harder: a working mother or a stay-at-home mother. I stand firm on my belief that it is hard for everyone.”
I’d like to second Carter’s claim and also take it further by asking, can’t we just put these Mommy Wars to bed? For one thing, the debate is absurdly reductive. No two mothers’ experiences are the same. Some stay-at-home-moms have six kids. Some have one. Some are experienced caretakers. Others are not. Some are healthy. Some struggle with illness. Some have a support network of other moms and/or family members in the neighborhood. Others are completely isolated, having perhaps moved somewhere for a job.
Meanwhile, some work-outside-the-home moms make six-figure salaries. Some make minimum wage. Some have family members who can watch their kids while they go to work. Some must hire nannies or pay for daycare. Some have sympathetic coworkers, pumping rooms, flexible schedules. Others work in restaurants, toll booths, bars, are on their feet non-stop with no time to use the bathroom, let alone space to pump breastmilk every few hours.
Point being, mothers are not a monolithic entity. Classifying mothers into these two broad categories is not only overly simplistic but is downright destructive. In truth, this question of whose life is more luxurious, who is more selfish, who is lazier, etc., is a genuine distraction from truly important issues that affect all families.
Few will be surprised to hear that The Huffington Post lists the U.S. as one of the worst 10 countries for paid maternity leave. According to the Guardian, “The U.S. is still the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave.” In Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that the average American company offers a mere two to six weeks of paid maternity leave.
Often overlooked in these statistics are those hired on a contingent basis—part-time workers, freelancers, contract workers who, as Skilled-up describes, “are not full-time employees of a company and once their project is finished, they are gone.” These contingent workers rarely receive health insurance, let alone any parental leave at all. The U.S. Department of Labor cites that contingent workers “often receive less pay and benefits than traditional full-time or ‘permanent’ workers, and they are less likely to benefit from the protections of labor and employment laws.” (Of note is that “A large percentage of workers who hold part-time or temporary positions do so involuntarily.”)
Unfortunately, contingent labor is becoming the norm, not the exception. An article in Forbes notes, “We can’t help but notice that businesses are increasing their dependency on contingent labor…It’s happening everywhere—all classes of work, from the executive suite to field laborers, in every industry across the globe.” As a result, it is increasingly common for parents to receive no parental accommodation whatsoever.
Meanwhile, those who do find full-time employment are often asked to relocate for their jobs. According to Fortune, “Employee relocations have been on the rise since 2010.” CNBC reports, “A modestly growing number of Americans are moving out of state to get a job…In the 12 months ended in March , 4.8 million, or 1.6 percent of Americans, moved to a different state, up from 4.3 million the previous 12 months…”
America’s working parents often wind up in a bind: Either you’re working on a contract basis with no benefits or you’re being asked to move for your job, leaving behind vital support networks. Or you simply work for a company that does not offer substantial parental leave. In all of these instances, parents may be forced to hire outside help to care for their children.
Mothers face an additional challenge. Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that when mothers work outside the home, they earn an average 24 cents less than women who do not have kids. In “The Wage Penalty for Motherhood,” Michelle J. Budig and Paula England write that “Mothers may earn less than other women because having children causes them to (1) lose job experience, (2) be less productive at work, (3) trade off higher wages for mother-friendly jobs, or (4) be discriminated against by employers…Results show a wage penalty of 7 percent per child.”
Meanwhile, the cost of daycare is higher than ever before. A Google search for “rising cost of daycare” brings back over 400,000 results. One paper shows that “the typical family currently spends 14 percent more on child care than it did in 1990.” The Atlantic notes, “There are now large swaths of the country…where daycare for an infant costs more than a tenth of the median married couple’s income. In states like Oregon, New York, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, it’s more than 15 percent.”
Because of these factors, many families are often compelled to have one stay-at-home parent, usually the mother. Yet this decision is not without its own set of costs. A Forbes study examined one school-teacher who chose to leave work and stay at home and noted that she would lose over $700,000 over her lifetime.
Then there is the psychological toll of being a stay-at-home parent. A recent Gallup poll shows that “Stay-at-home moms are…more likely to report having ever been diagnosed with depression than employed moms.”
All of this is to say, in this Mommy War battle, no one is really winning. But the real question is, why are women such as Carter still feeling compelled to defend their decisions at all?
It seems to me that it is not mothers who ought to be defending their choices, but rather employers who ought to be defending their abysmal policies regarding parental leave. It is companies who ought to be challenged in regards to their increased preference for contingent workers for whom they are not required to offer benefits. We ought to question the conditions that demand increasing employee relocation, as well as those that make it possible for employers to financially penalize mothers.
It is also the government that needs to defend its policies toward child care, how it justifies forcing workers to pay such steep amounts when in many other countries child care is free. As The Federalist states, “The real issue is that, in the United States, parents are, for the most part, expected to foot the bill for childcare on their own…most EU governments heavily subsidize daycare, leaving parents to pick up only a small share of the bill.”
Wouldn’t it make more sense for all parents, mothers in all circumstances, workers across all industries, to stop pointing fingers at one another and instead see our many commonalities? Rather than direct our attention at other parents, it is high time we all focused elsewhere: toward the employers, companies, and government that shape the policies, practices, and conditions which affect all of our lives.
Let’s stop trying to fit mothers into these neat, overly simplistic categories for the sake of the petty one up-manship driving these Mommy Wars. Let’s stop waging war against one another.
Instead, let’s start looking critically at a political and economic system that values the limitless pursuit of profit over the well-being of workers, families, and children.
Becky Tuch is an award-winning writer and editor whose fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines. Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review online and elsewhere. Find her at www.BeckyTuch.com.