Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s declaration a few weeks ago that Republican first lady hopeful Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life” has played out in the media as another politically charged spat in the perpetual mommy wars about women’s choice between paid labor or at-home family care.
It turns out though that the idea of “choice,” whether invoked by left or right, doesn’t even begin to describe the real dilemmas of work and family. Seeing the decision as a choice women make between two options may feel like a happy compromise in the culture wars, but the language of choice has helped obscure the role that business practices, economic pressures, and government policies play in shaping the possibilities that any individual family might choose among.
To see our way forward, we would all do better to remember that the birth of choice came at a particular political and historical moment.
The idea of choosing to stay at home or to work for wages emerged in the 1970s out of a debate that raged across the country over the fate of the housewife. Women’s movement activists claimed victory in widening choices for women’s lives. But, the then-brand-new “pro-family” movement accused feminists of denigrating the role of housewife and mother.
To begin to talk of choice was a break from that debate, a position taken to signal respect for women’s unpaid labor in the home as a choice among the many that women might make.
In the context of the more conservative 1980s, the language of choice took off. The very first mommy wars stories appeared in the early years of the 1980s. These stories popularized the idea of choice as a kind of demilitarized zone between the two sides. By February 1987, Working Mother magazine urged women not to “occupy opposing camps” but “to work together to make it possible for each woman to make choices from an array of options.”
Choice fit the privatizing impulses of the age, too. Problems of work and family became individual dilemmas of choice, handed over to individual families to resolve. Families now struggled with the “balancing act,” picking and choosing from a hodge-podge of benefits – an employer’s child-care subsidy here, a job lost to pregnancy there.
At the same time, the decade’s self-help manuals incessantly counseled mothers to manage their guilt and feel positive about whatever choice they made. Women were busy managing their emotions and their families, looking for how to make “the right decisions,” rather than looking at the ways social and economic forces constrained their choices.
Choice was in; structure was out.
More recently, liberals have adopted the same pragmatic frame that Hilary Rosen has responded with: Choice should, of course, be respected, but it is meaningless for most women. The reality, they say, is few mothers have any real choice to be out of the paid workforce. And Ms. Rosen is correct. The statistics and the economics are on her side.
The problem with the “this is the reality” response though is that it dismisses another reality: the deep ambivalence in our society about paid labor for mothers, especially of young children. A Pew Center Research Report in 2009 showed 42 percent of Americans still believe it is best for young children when mothers are at home. Another 40 percent saw part-time maternal wage earning as ideal.
Clearly there is a deep desire on the part of Americans for reasonable and significant possibilities for parental care of children. Those possibilities extend far beyond a choice that women make between two mutually exclusive options.
But this desire runs smack dab into constraint.
Our modern work culture and structures of paid employment constrain decision-making day in and day out. As Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California and others have argued, we live with a mismatch: workplaces designed for the 19th century and household economics of the 21st century. Jobs with long hours and little flexibility designed for male-breadwinner households, limited access to paid parental leave, and few opportunities for well-paid part-time work all constrain care.
My sister-in-law, an executive at a large insurance company, told me a story a couple of years ago about her workplace, which encapsulates this culture perfectly. The professionals on her team put in long hours, and while she respected their family obligations and worked hard to fulfill her own, she could not escape the feeling that those who left the office on the early side contributed less.
Her framework was choice, but what she really confronted was constraint: the constraints of a system where there is no level playing field for work-family needs because there are no systematic government or private-sector rules of the game that recognize that all workers have family obligations – men and women.
Typically, we are blind to this constraint. We accept it simply as “the way things work.” Nor do we look at the deeply held desires that push against those constraints. Men and women both share deep and valid desires to nurture their children while still earning a living or sustaining careers beyond the home.
The painful desires and constraints that shape the “choices” surrounding childcare, parenting, and paid work often simply disappear from the debate. But when the complexity behind the Rosen-Romney remarks gets reduced to a question of choice, we are left with a bland, ultimately unhelpful admonishment to “respect each other.”
The truth is that American families live their lives under competing pressures of both constraint and desire. In order to have a conversation that might actually lead to productive solutions and changes to workplace culture, government policy, and societal attitudes, we must speak clearly about the forces that constrain American families and the desires shaping their decisions.
Yes, “every mother is a working mother” – but let’s make sure that phrase doesn’t end up an empty slogan.
Kirsten Swinth is an associate professor of history at Fordham University. Her work focuses on women, work, and culture. She is working on a book about care and competition in postindustrial America and the making of the working family. This op-ed was written in association with The Op-Ed Project.