I generally stay out of the whole stay-at-home mom vs. working-mom debate. I believe nearly every mother gets up in the morning and tries to do the best she can for her family with whatever working arrangement she has. Motherhood is hard enough without attacking those, or fending off attacks from those, who make different choices.
However, the April 8, 2007 issue of “Parade” Magazine raised an issue that is definitely worth responding to. In the article, “Can Moms Afford Not to Work?” Lyric Wallwork Winik refers to a new book “The Feminine Mistake” by Leslie Bennetts which maintains that becoming a stay-at-home mom is “an economic choice with potentially dire consequences”, arguing that “even taking three years off will cause a 37% cut in earnings compared to women who remain.” She asks, “Are you a better mother if you stayed at home but suddenly can’t provide for your family?” in the event of a divorce.
I will concede this is a valid concern and an unfortunate statement on where motherhood ranks on the list of “valued professions” in our capitalistic economy. If there isn’t a dollar value associated to what you are doing, then what you are doing doesn’t matter. According to a study released in May 2006, a full-time, stay-at-home mother would earn $134,121 a year if paid for all her work (http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20060504/news_lz1n4read.html), but the reality is that most people look down on stay-at-home moms, thinking that their talents could be better utilized doing something else.
I recently read “The 7 Myths of Working Mothers” by Suzanne Venker. I didn’t enjoy the book, primarily because it just adds fuel to the whole “mommy war” scenario I referred to above. However, Venker makes some interesting points. The reality is that you either raise your children yourselves, or you pay someone to do it for you. The children may turn out fine either way and there still may be a very strong mother-child bond. However, isn’t it ironic that people value child care if you are caring for someone else’s children? No one would tell a day care worker or nanny that what she (or he) is doing isn’t work, but care for your own children and you have been relegated to the unimportant. Venker also makes note of the fact that many moms work part-time (this is what the vast majority of my own circle of stay-at-home moms do, myself included), and that the distinction between a stay-at-home mom and a “working mom” is that stay-at-home moms plan their work around their children while working moms try to fit in parenting around their work schedule.
There is also the economic impact of working. Having both spouses working can actually result in greater expenses than having one spouse stay home. Once day care, transportation, clothing allowances, and other work-related expenses are taken into account, it can often cost more to work. There is also an emotional toll on a marriage when both partners have stressful jobs. Once again, this is an issue that each family needs to make their best decisions about in light of their own particular circumstances. It is also a decision that many women don’t have the luxury of making if they are single mothers.
Yet Bennetts is correct that stay-at-home moms do face economic consequences. Our retirement accounts don’t get contributed to and our social security benefits depend on our husbands. Wouldn’t it be better if the government actually supported the work mothers do by awarding mothers social security based on some agreed upon value, say $30,000 a year (I’m not saying that is all stay-at-home mothers are worth but it would be a start) or if there was a tax deduction for being a stay-at-home mom? There is a child-care credit? Why shouldn’t there be a credit for actually caring for your own children?
The answer to whether moms can afford not to work should not be to push women into the workforce when they would rather take on the challenging and rewarding (albeit exhausting!) work of raising their children. It should be to revise our social system so that women aren’t economically penalized for being mothers.