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April 06, 2007

Mommy wars miss the point

I find this whole SAHM v.s. working mom "debate" aka mommy wars painful and dumb.  It causes me pain, because I don't have a choice. You may be thinking she means "I need the money so I have to work."  No, I mean I have to stay at home because we can't afford financially, or in stress load, or time needed for childcare for me to work, at least for now.  The debate assumes all children have similar needs.  They do not.

We're lucky that despite our challenges, my husband earns enough to keep us here in Silicon Valley.   I used to earn a nice wage as middle management in an Internet company. I did choose to stay at home once I got pregnant.  That was my "choice".  I was in a high stress job, but I could have taken a lower stress job.  My typical daughter could have gone into daycare after she was 6 weeks old.  Many moms do this.  I know there's high quality day care here for typical kids. 

Then my special needs son was born.  Daycare was not an option for my son for his first 18 months.  He couldn't be exposed to other kids.  He has a complicated medical history and for months needed medication several times a day, numerous doctor's appointments and therapy appointments. I looked into what it would cost for what would be essentially a full-time nurse.  It would be about a wash with my salary.  And that doesn't include all the time I spend coordinating his appointments and getting various agencies to give him services.

My extended family either works full-time or has health problems. So that left me or my husband staying at home.  I was already not working, so I continued to stay home.  What would have done if I was a single mom you ask?  Probably gone on welfare.  Ahh, welfare moms.  Another maligned group.

And here's why I think it's dumb.  As a feminist, I believe that most women make the decision to work or stay at home in a way that makes sense for their families. 

Some say that SAHM childcare is inherently superior to any other type of childcare.  Studies come out pro and con.  I think they also miss the point.  No one loves my children more than me and my family. However I sent my typical daughter off to preschool and in September she'll go to Kindergarten.  So clearly I believe that my daughter needs other forms of childcare than just me.  If your child goes to school, you don't actually believe that SAHM childcare is inherently superior 24x7.  You have other agendas.  I know some believe SAHM are so superior that they homeschool.  That's another debate.

I think most women recognize there are financial penalties to not working.  But money isn't everything.  I understand needing to work, because your family needs the money.

But then there's the argument as argued in various books including Feminine Mistake that women should work so they "aren't financially dependent on their husband in case they get divorced" I know the divorce rate is high.  But I think that husbands and wives should share financial responsibilities regardless of who works and who doesn't, and especially if you have kids.   Legally in California, if you're married, you're financially a single entity unless you take specific steps not to be.  And once you're listed on the birth certificate, you're financially responsible for your children.  Yes, there are deadbeat dads, but most were not married to the mothers of their children in the first place-- media hysteria to the contrary.  And if you're worried that the father of your children will shirk his financial responsibilities to your children if you separate, then I think it's a bad idea to have children with him, but if you've already had kids with him, yes, absolutely you should work.

I can understand wanting to work, because either work satisfies you, or because not working affects your self-esteem, because not earning money and"just" being a mommy is still undervalued and/or because not earning money just worries you.  I sometimes long to go back to work for these reasons.  But these are not really financial considerations.  It's how society views motherhood and work.

What gets lost in the so-called "mommy wars" is that most workplace environments are very unfamily friendly.  This affects women disproportionately more than men, because women are still expected to be the primary caregivers.  Therefore to me, it's a feminist issue.  People forget history and assume that a) women working started with the industrial revolution and therefore b) working was always family unfriendly.

It's funny because the book The Feminine Mistake outlines a life of extreme privilege of non-working moms in the past.  In actuality, the idea of a "working mom" v.s. a "stay-at-home mom" is a relatively new concept for most women.  Before WWII, most moms worked in the US.  And in nonWestern countries, most moms still work.  Not working is only for the privileged few.  Moms work on the land, in shops or stalls, or at home producing income for their families.  Some work in factories or in other corporate entities.  They either bring their kids with them, or depend on extended family for childcare.

Here in the US, the extended family is gone for many families, and most workplaces do not allow you to bring your kids to work, or provide quality childcare.  I think this is the real issue for moms.  And one worth fighting about.  Not whether moms choose between a rock and a hard place.


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