Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for mothers

By now I'm sure you've heard of the Ann "Stay At Home Mother" Romney controversy. (PS, are you shocked that this is my second blog post referencing Ann Romney? Because I am.)

In short, a Democratic advisor said on CNN that Ann Romney was not a credible voice on women and the economy because she had "never worked a day in her life." Boos and hissing ensued. The President and First Lady went to bat for Ann Romney and candidates' families in general.

And while it took a little while, the original critic eventually apologized, saying that her real point was that Ann Romney was privileged enough to marry a man capable of supporting their family on his paycheck alone, entitling Ann the option of staying home if she chose, and therefore she cannot relate to other women who are less privileged.

Which I still think is a bullshit opinion.

Here's the thing--I don't believe that staying at home with your kids is a job. (Boo! Hiss!) And honestly, I suspect everyone who doesn't want their cars egged secretly agrees.

But it just isn't. A job is something you do for money, and stay at home parents don't get paid. If they were, they'd be called nannies and babysitters.

I really dislike studies that argue a stay at home parent would earn X amount of money if all their duties were outsourced because it perpetuates the idea that something must have an economic value to have societal value. (Also, it's just baloney. Calculating how much it would cost to have someone else buy your groceries and cook your meals? I have to do that anyway to live and I don't have a kid, so why does the same activity suddenly have monetary value when a parent does it? End tangent.)

There are many things I do that have no economic value. I shovel my walk in the winter. I vote. I do volunteer work. These things are not additional "jobs" to my actual job--these are the duties of a good citizen. The responsibilities of an adult. 

Someone who has a child and then cares for that child is not doing a job. I don't know why society insists on pretending otherwise.

Back to Ann Romney.

Ann Romney raised the five kids she had. She did volunteer work. She battled cancer and MS. But she didn't have a job.

Since when does that, and that alone, mean she can't relate to those who do have jobs?

What if I were to argue that as a woman, Callista Gingrich is not capable of relating to men? Or as a black person, Michelle Obama is not capable of relating to white people? Clearly both of those statements rely on a thousand incorrect assumptions, the biggest of which is that a person must endure every circumstance personally before being capable of relating to others.  

But that's clearly not true.

Now, it very well may be that Ann Romney cannot relate to the problems of a poor mother who works two jobs and still has to take food stamps for her kids. But please offer some evidence for that other than the mere fact that Ann Romney has never needed food stamps herself.

Sometimes it feels like the whole country is infected with a case of the Ricki Lake guest "You don't knooooooow me"s with a serious dose of "And you neva can!"s. And it's time to come down with a case of the FDR "Maybe I'm super rich and my legs don't work, but I can still see why coal mining would be a rough gig"s.

So from now on, let's all start from the presumption that President Obama, Michelle Obama, Mitt Romney, and Ann Romney can all relate to all of us until you have evidence (not speculation) to prove otherwise.



  1. I don't think the problem is Ann Romney's ability to relate. I think the problem is that Mitt used her as his connection to women who are struggling economically. Ann Romney's hobbies include equestrianism and she got a degree in liberal arts with a concentration in French. She isn't someone can relate to, and that's fine.

    It isn't fine to claim that she's your great connection to women of America.

    Totes agree about staying at home not being a job though and it irritates me when people say it is, because it's totally not. Doesn't mean it has no value, but it's not the same thing at all.

    1. That's true, and another issue I should have gotten into. Even assuming Ann Romney is the perfect person to relate to women's economic issues, it's not ok that a presidential candidate would say, "I've got my wife, that's all I need." Could you imagine if Pres. Obama said that about Michelle? Mitt should have his own opinions about these issues as well as a group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds advising him, saying that his wife (intelligent and compassionate though she may be) is all he needs emphasizes how badly he misunderstands this issue.

      Glad you agree on the "job" thing. It frustrates me when people get upset about that -- honestly I think we might be better off arguing that non-economic duties like parenthood have "value" if we stopped pretending that everything must have economic value to matter.

  2. Agree, Lovely Lauren. Ann Romney may have raised 5 boys, but she also had a maid, a cook, a housekeeper, a laundress, and gardeners. As a single mother who has raised 2 kids, and worked outside of the home the whole time, I agree that while Ann can perhaps relate to some of the emotional struggles of being a parent, she had a HUGE cushion that most of us don't have, and no, I don't really think she speaks for me or understands the real world struggles that most women deal with. And, while she has devoted her life to meaningful (to her) work, and yay for that, she hasn't had a job!

    A job is something you go to where you get paid, and you have to suck it up and go when you don't feel like it, and go when it's not convenient, and go when you'd rather be volunteering in you're kids classroom, and your boss doesn't have to listen to you because HE's THE BOSS, and you usually can't leave because if you did, your kids would go hungry and wouldn't have health insurance. So although I'm not knocking Ann for the choices she's made, I truly don't think she has any idea what its like for the 99 percenters.

    Thanks for a provocative post, Ru

  3. I'm not going to lie, I got a little defensive when I first read this post. With my first child, I worked, after my second was born, I stayed at home. My husband is a civil servant making below the average in the area we live, and I don't consider it "lucky" that I stay home, we cut out a lot to make it possible.

    I see however, that your point is not to disparage stay-at-home moms. I completely agree that we need to stop making things about economic value in order to contribute to society. And it's true, just because I have not walked the exact same path as you, does not mean that on many levels I can't relate.

    Great post. Lots to think about.

    1. I'm glad you liked it, at least somewhat. I would suggest that most stay-at-home-parents would get initially defensive when presented with the idea that what they do is not "work," simply because our whole society emphasizes "work" over anything else. But I had another thought reading your comment.

      Leaving aside the fact that society undervalues parenthood, I think society has the right emphasis regarding the failure to adequately parent. If I went to my job and was asked to care for a toddler, clean up its messes and change its diapers, I would quit. There simply isn't enough financial incentive to make me do that. And there would be nothing my boss could do to stop me from quitting. It would be completely might right and prerogative to quit.

      But if I had a child, there is no option to quit. In fact, if I tried to quit -- if I stopped feeding my child, dressing my child, cleaning my child -- I would be arrested and my child would be taken away. There is simply no "employment" scenario where a person could be forced to do their job. Even a person in violating of an employment contract cannot be forced to specifically perform their duties. A job is an obligation I can let go of if I choose -- parenthood is a duty that I cannot forgo. No one arrests you for failure to work, but society has very little tolerance for people who utterly fail to fulfill their duties.

    2. Bah! Substitute "job" for "work" in my previous comment. Parenting is work, it's just.not a job.

    3. That last line is exactly right.

  4. This post makes me want to be a lawyer. And I love sitting on my duff all day and raising a kid. Staying home, choosing whether or not I want to shower, and feeding and playing with my son... doesn't merit a paycheck.
    And I like it that way. No payroll taxes!

  5. I agree with you to a point but I still think there needs to be SOME economic value given to caregiving and not just because it would benefit mothers, but because it's been shown in studies to improve societal stability, reduce poverty, and dramatically increase the status of ALL women (not just mothers). Why? Because the same kind of concerns that apply to mothers apply to all caregivers. And an incredibly large majority of women eventually at some stage in life find themselves in a caretaking role even if they've specifically chosen not to pursue stay-at-home-momdon -- tending to the needs of their ailing parents, a disabled sibling, having to take over as caregiver for nieces and nephews or grandchildren when the children's parents need extra help because of unemployment, are put in jail, killed by cancer, etc., etc. I can't think of a single female senior attorney at my place of work (all of whom are in their 40s to 60s) who has children at home. And yet all of them have had to use vacation time, take a hit to their billable hours, or make a variety of other accommodations because of their role as a caregiver. They have to run a sick mother who is too old to drive to a routine dentist appointment, to fly across the country to help an elderly father after a heart attack, or I even heard one of my bosses hiring a maid during her lunch hour for her mother who lived out of state after the in-home health nurse became concerned the mother's vision was becoming too poor to keep the house sanitary. One woman I know cut back to part time and won't return to full time until she has either placed her mother in a care center she is comfortable with and can afford or her mother has deceased. At some point the large majority of the women in our country (whether as young mothers or older career professionals)will have to cut back hours at work for an extended time period (possibly giving up health insurance and retirement benefits because those types of perks are only available to "full time" workers or even promotion opportunities) or quit work completely (thus giving up any right to social security in addition to income and their own retirement/health benefits) because the large majority of caregiving is still done by women. To me it seems silly to differentiate between whether this choice was made for children who are dependent and small or because of adults who have become incapacitated. It is fair to argue that that a woman would have had to buy groceries, do laundry, etc. for herself anyway, but it is not fair to argue that it is anywhere equivalent to the same amount of time it takes to care for others or that somehow these children, ailing parents are going to wait around for her to finish her shift at work before becoming ill and needing a ride to the hospital, needing their medication, or specially prepared food placed on the table. Many of these women don't have the luxury that my boss does to hire a maid or in-home health aid for their parents because they simply can't afford it. It is cheaper for them to give up their income and live off of savings and do it themselves than to run up absurd amounts of debt. I don't know what the exact solution is, but several European countries have some wonderful approaches.

  6. (Sorry, this got way longer winded than I intended so I had to split it up.) I don't think many of them would realistically work here. Caregiver stipends? Not going to happen. But allowing caregivers (not just mothers, but anyone who sacrifices what you call a "real job" to prevent someone else from becoming a ward of the state and therefore a drain on tax dollars and already overburdened and overwhelmed gov't. care facilities because they are providing the care themselves instead) to earn rights to Social Security or somehow set up Roth retirement accounts seems entirely sensible to me. Your post does a good job of not judging those who choose stay at home...but it does little to acknowledge that motherhood (and other types of primary caregiving) are the #1 indicator of poverty in our country. Many mothers CHOOSE to stay home...but many do not. It seems absurd to me that those who are giving up the most to save society HUGE costs and prevent fellow human beings in our society from slipping into substandard care are not only expected to take the fall when they give up a paycheck and live frugally, but again when it is time for them to become aging that they will have no resources, no retirement fund, no social security check of their own because our society and the gov't. will look at their lack of paystubs and hours "punched in" and tell them it hasn't "been earned." In essence, "they've never worked a day in their lives."

    1. One can contribute to an IRA without being the actual workforce. I'm a mom. I stay at home. And I have a retirement fund. I know that I won't actually retire from being a mother... but I still plan for the future. Just as anyone can.

    2. Brooke, I definitely agree that it is difficult for most mothers who choose to stay at home to adequately prepare for retirement. (Frankly, as a lot of retiring baby boomers are now discovering, it's hard for everyone who doesn't commit to retirement savings at a relatively young age.) And society should do a better job educating people about the potential for stay-at-home-mothers to wind up with the short end of the stick in their old age.

      At the same time, I honestly don't know what the solution to this problem is. It's unlikely the U.S. will ever follow the European model of incentivizing parenthood (not only is it political kryptonite, but we frankly don't have to -- Europe's birthrates are declining, ours are not, which means people are still having kids despite the huge financial burden they present), so what is the solution for providing an adequate safety net for people who choose to stay home and care for their children? Unfortunately, I think we've gotten to the point where we're going to have "working elderly" whenever you have a situation where a person is not financially prepared for retirement, whether or not they chose to stay home with their children, and most people are falling into the "financially unprepared" category.

    3. Patty -- that's awesome you are able to save for the future and be a stay at home mom, but my guess is that you can do so because there is another income earner in your house.

      If someone has been forced out of a job because their caregiving responsibilities keep them from holding one down, how on earth are they going to contribute to an IRA without income? I know many middle-aged women who have had to take long absences from work to care for aging parents. These caregivers save society HUGE amounts of money and yet we're not willing to ensure their social security is maintained at a basic level in the meantime?

  7. Shorter version now that I'm not too delirious to be concise: Whether you count motherhood as a "job" is a matter of semantics, but saying that full-time caregiving has no economic value is just flat-out false. Not all non-jobs lack economic value or impact.

    1. Whoa, this got crazy over the weekend! (In a good way. :))

      Brooke, thanks for the comments, you brought up interesting stuff. Where we differ is what I view as "economic value" versus "economic impact." I think parenting has economic impact, but not value. For one, someone can be the "best" possible parent and still create a negative economic impact (ie, by raising a child who is a financial drain on society). Two, the idea of economic value seems like something you should be able to measure, but no one can measure the economic value of parenting. Again, a person can be a terrible parent and somehow still raise a model citizen. How do we evaluate that "value"? We can't.

      Lots of things in life impact the economy (rainfall in Hawaii, peace talks in the Middle East) that we can't truly measure, and that's the category where I would put parenting. Does that mean we shouldn't create a better system of supporting parents? No.

    2. Second, I don't think that saying whether or not parenthood is a "job" is a matter of semantics, partly because society assigns prestige(or not) based on your "job." I'd argue that if we'd recognize parenthood as something that is NOT a job, but something that is altogether different and to be valued separately, we would gain more prestige for parenthood. As it is, we all know that parenthood doesn't fit the definition of a job. If I were to describe the concept of a "job" to a person who had never heard of one before, I would say things like, "You complete tasks for money. You are evaluated on how well you complete the tasks and presumably there is some sort of objectivity for that evaluation. You can choose to abandon the tasks if you quit and you can be told to abandon the tasks if you are fired or laid off. If you don't like one set of tasks, you can apply to do a different set of tasks for money." None of those things sound like parenthood. Yet despite that fact, we continue to pretend that parenting is a "job" simply because it is difficult and laudable. I think the cognitive dissonance these facts create is why people don't entirely respect parenthood as much as they ought to.

      In connection with this, we inadvertently add to the so-called "Mommy Wars" by insisting that parenthood is a "job." Ok, so great, stay-at-home-parents are full-time parents, working parents are "part-time" parents? That's insulting. Or are all parents "full time," but parents who also work outside the home for a paycheck just capable of performing two full-time jobs simultaneously (where as stay-at-home-parents are not?) Equally problematic. Yet that is how we treat parents who work (and the caregivers of adult parents, as you've described): people with two full-time jobs that they should be able to do simultaneously, excellently, and with the compensation for doing only one of them.

      But imagine, instead, that your coworkers weren't taking off time to care for children or elderly relatives, but were being shipped off to fight wildfires for a month as part of a volunteer unit of the National Guard. (Not the best analogy, since the National Guard is paid, but imagine it were unpaid). What coworker would not understand that sacrifice, and that negatively impacting that person's career because of their sacrifice would be unacceptable? I know this is a big tangent from my original point, but I think that by describing parenthood as more of a duty than a job, we'd actually gain more respect and support for it.

      The other benefit of stopping calling parenthood a "job" is that we could stop holding people to an arbitrary standard of what a "good job" is. I know, basically, whether I am a good lawyer or a bad lawyer. It's an objective standard that you assess based on how well I succeed at representing and advising clients. But what makes a good parent? It's kind of impossible to evaluate and creates a lot of unnecessary pressure on parents to perform to an always-moving "target" of success.

    3. I can appreciate the difference between economic value and economic impact so I will definitely have to think about that more. And interesting points about "duty" and increasing respect for parents. I think those are really great goals but I worry that "valuing" parenting won't look like anything more than the patriarchal pat on the head mothers are given in the church "What you do is SOOOO important! But not actually important enough for us to make sure that you are encouraged to have the education you need to keep you from falling into poverty while doing it or encouraging your husbands to be stay-at-home dads. It's OK if you're poor, frazzled, or unfulfilled ... you'll get your reward in the eternities because it's THAT important!" I realize society might not take it that far, but I worry that if there is no economic value attached to parenthood, people aren't going to take the challenge to "value" parenting very seriously. Money talks. What would more "support" for parents look like in your view without turning to economics like caregiver stipends or retirement contributions? Would it mean PSA's on television lauding parental efforts? Would it be community parenting classes? State-run daycares? Even all of those options would require money and since caregiving isn't viewed as a "job" it's pushed to the bottom of the budget/expenditure list.

      More importantly, I think our government has an obligation to make sure that caregivers aren't poor just because they're caregivers. Making parents feel more valued or supported isn't going to make up for the fact that they are living below the poverty line.

    4. But I do really love the idea that removing the label "job" from parenting might lead to less judging. That's something I can definitely get behind.

    5. The thing is, I honestly have no idea what it would look like either. But I think the last however many decades of acting like it's an unpaid "job" hasn't really done society much good. If anything, there seems to be a sort of resentment that parenthood takes away from your "real" job -- ie, judges deciding that nursing a baby is not a "pregnancy-related" condition, presidential candidates declaring that women with 2-year-olds get back into the workforce and off welfare.

      I think we need to have stronger policies that support taking time off to care for family members, and people need to be more proactive in seeking out jobs that support that. When the best candidates for a job decide that lifestyle balance is more important than any other factor, companies will adjust in order to keep top talent. But as long as people accept that companies are going to take advantage of them, the companies will definitely oblige.

      I also think there needs to be a lot more education going on about the expenses of having a child and the need to adequately prepare for retirement at the same time, probably even as early as high school. (This may also be due to me watching a Teen Mom marathon this weekend ...) Yeah, enough said on that. :p

    6. Agreed. We desperately need better caregiving policies at work. I think it's going to have come through legislation for most people, though ... I think the pressure you're talking about with people insisting on better work-life balance and companies adjusting is definitely happening in high end jobs and for those in upper and higher middle class careers. Things that take a master's degree or more (and in a few limited cases bachelor's degrees, too). Cheryl Sandberg anyone? But that simply isn't going to work in the lower middle and lower class industries that only require a high school diploma. Hourly-wage work is never going to adjust without some legislation with teeth behind it. But I think that's as much a class issue as a parenting issue. Which appropriately brings us back to the post...Rosen's comments were as much about class as about parenting.

  8. Without the gigantic political aspect of this... I think Lovely Lauren hit it on the head. I can't relate because she may have been at home, but she wasn't actually doing the job herself.

    I was a single mother of two working part time for the Post office, often having to chose between food and electricity. Why? Because I had a job, and that in the lovely state of Massachusetts, that made me eligible for nothing, not even help. I'm thinking that Ann never had to make those types of choices, therefore can not relate to me.

    That said, I often say that being a mother is my career, the post office is my job. A career is something you do that you love, it is your calling, and what you pour your passion into. A job pays the bills.

    I am lucky that I can have both.