Ann Romney working mom debate obscures value of child care

Somebody needs to take care of the kids, and the Ann Romney working mom debate is evidence that child care is mostly invisible in economic and political discussion – until someone misspeaks.

As the Obama camp stumbles over itself to defend Ann Romney (left) in the working mom debate, the real issue – the value of child care – seems lost.

It's hard not to appreciate the scene in the aftermath of the Ann Romney versus Hilary Rosen mommy wars dustup: Republicans scrambling over themselves to voice shocked feminism, and the Democrats scrambling over themselves to smooth over a gaff that offended women – and then making the assertion that the whole thing doesn’t really matter that much anyhow.

But I also wonder if all sides might be missing a big point.

The Obama camp is sticking up for stay-at-home-mom Ms. Romney, whose husband the president is likely to be running against in November elections: Michelle Obama tweeted yesterday that “Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.” President Obama said the comment by Ms. Rosen, a Democratic strategist that Romney had "never worked a day in her life" was "the wrong thing to say." The president's strategist David Axlrod tweeted that he was "disappointed" with Rosen's "inappropriate and offensive" words. Rosen even apologized, saying she was sorry if she had offended people and asking to "declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance."

I don't write much about politics – don't really want to. And sure, in the grand scheme of the presidential landscape (hello North Korean nuclear program!), perhaps Rosen is correct – the mommy wars should not, probably, be given too much weight.

But it’s hard to stomach the idea that this issue doesn’t have substance. 

Since we first wrote about this yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of Rosen’s Tweets – one she wrote before the grand apology. Read it, and see if you catch the missing link: the people behind the women who work out of the home - the childcare providers.

“When I said @AC360 Ann Romney never worked I meant she never had to care for her kids AND earn a paycheck like MOST American women! #Truth.”

I’ve decided the reason this tweet has been bothering me is that it ignores another big #Truth: that somebody needs to be taking care of the kids, even when mom goes to work. It’s not like most career moms are bringing baby to the office, or trying to man that conference call or workstation with a toddler scurrying around their ankles.  

So while they face a juggle – one that can be incredibly stressful (or rewarding) – it’s not quite fair to characterize “working moms” as  having two jobs, while “stay-at-homes” have one. (That whole “second shift” thing, where moms take on housework and childcare at the end of the day, probably happens to everyone – stay-at-homes and career moms alike). 

What's missing in Rosen’s argument is the other person (or people) involved in childcare.  

That person is invisible. And that, I’d venture, is a problematic – but pretty common – omission. It seems to me that’s pretty reflective of how we, as a society, tend to treat people who take care of our kids. 

Recent stories of $100,000-a-year nannies aside, childcare workers are notoriously underpaid. This is true in the United States, where the Bureau of Labor statistics say the median pay of childcare workers is just under $20,000 a year; it is even more glaring elsewhere in the world. 

In South Africa, where I lived for a number of years, nannies (or “domestics,” as they were regularly called) often made pennies; last year the South African government announced an increase of the minimum wage for domestic workers up to the equivalent of about $50 a week.

Because if we’re going to talk about parenting, and the social questions involved in raising kids, it’s worth looking at how (and why) we weigh it economically.  Because for better or worse, in our world that often equals value. 

And how we value kids, I’d say, is an issue for all political parties.

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