Once again, the social critics are decrying the dire consequences of the movement of women (and especially mothers) into the paid labor force. Lack of maternal attention causes crime, illiteracy, and unemployability. Children are growing up without adult supervision or role modeling. Or not growing up at all.
We don’t, of course, need the social critics to inform us that no parent can be in two places at the same time, that it is not physically possible for the same person to nurture and educate a child and earn the money to provide for her. Most of us can figure that out for ourselves. I share the critics’ concern for the welfare of children who are raised with a patchwork of care from relatives, sitters, schools, and day care centers for most of their waking hours.
But the fact is that most employed women work for the same reasons most employed men do–first and foremost they need the money to support the lifestyle they consider proper for their households, and secondarily, they get psychological benefits from the status, socialization, and variety of paid employment, and the independence derived from earning their own incomes.
How far should a family be willing to reduce its living standards to keep an adult at home during the children’s waking hours? Obviously, a single parent has very little choice in the matter, except that provided by the welfare system. But in a two-parent family, how little should the primary earner be earning before a second earner gets recruited? Poverty level? Modest but adequate? Neither of these provides for home ownership, private schooling, or college education for the children. Must we conclude that these are unrealistic dreams for the good family? That the presence of an adult at home can do more to improve the children’s prospects in later life than private schooling and college? Should we write off the American dream and concentrate on hearth and home?
All of these questions are purely economic. But real people make economic decisions based on a mixture of economic and non-economic motives. Men work even if they can afford not to, because in our culture a job is as much a requisite of being a male as pants that zip in the front. They work because that’s the only way they can have regular contact with other adult males. But above all, they work because being self-supporting is one of our culture’s most basic moral values. We firmly believe that people who are not self-supporting are parasites. A person who is too young, too old, or too sick to work will be spared our scorn, but may have to endure our pity or patronization instead. Women work for the same sorts of reasons: to have regular contact with other adults, and to feel like responsible, respectable adults.
We are very specific in our definition of “self-supporting.” It involves being paid money for providing services or making goods. Usually, it involves going outside the home, acquiring a boss, and doing what the boss tells us. Any job that doesn’t include all these elements is at least suspect. And any work, no matter how arduous, that doesn’t involve making money simply isn’t a job at all.
As a divorce lawyer, ten years ago, I used to see a fair number of women clients whose husbands had forbidden them to seek employment outside the home. When they got to my office, it was generally because life had now switched the rules on them. Either their husbands had abandoned them, or they had left their husbands (often impelled by several years of physical abuse.) With luck, their husbands would be affluent enough and the court generous enough to allow them a few years of “rehabilitative maintenance” (as if having been a homemaker were a crippling injury) during which they could acquire some job skills. That was Transitional Stage One.
Now, apparently, we are in Transitional Stage Two. It began with the fall of the Public Assistance system into disrepute. When the system began in the 1930s, under the New Deal, it was a way to support mothers whose husbands had abandoned them or (more often) died, so that they could stay at home and raise their children in dignity. These deserving widows were not expected to enter the labor force, partly because their job at home was deemed more important and partly because, like Social Security retirees, they were less of a burden on a depressed economy if they could be kept out of the already overcrowded work force.
But over the succeeding twenty years, a larger proportion of Public Assistance recipients was divorced or even never-married, rather than widowed. A larger proportion was non-white. And the labor force was no longer trying to keep people out; on the contrary, it was expanding wildly and eager to take new workers in. So the myth of the welfare mother was born. Her work at home was not worth public subsidy, if only because (legend had it) she never did any. Her housekeeping was slovenly, her children ran wild, and she spent her money on booze and fancy clothes and her time on conceiving more children so as to collect more benefits. She was being paid to do nothing and to raise another generation of do-nothings to absorb public money in their turn.
The myth of the Welfare Mother was supplemented by the Myth of the Alimony Drone (who collects enormous sums of her ex-husband’s hard-earned money for nothing other than a few years of marital bliss, and does nothing with her time but sit around at poolside and seduce the yard-man), and by the Myth of the Lazy Housewife, who sleeps until noon every day and then spends her afternoons eating chocolates and watching soap operas until the kids (if she has any) come home from school, or her husband comes home from work. Her house, of course, is filthy, and her children totally undisciplined and unsupervised.
I don’t know any women who believe the Lazy Housewife myth (except, in a few cases, about their daughters-in-law.) I don’t know anybody on alimony who believes the Alimony Drone myth. I don’t know any woman who has ever been on Public Aid who believes the Welfare Mother myth (except, sometimes, about welfare recipients of another race.) But I know very few men who don’t (at some level) believe all of them. They will make exceptions for the women they know and are not currently angry at, rather like Archie Bunker and his Black neighbors. But even the most well-intentioned man will unthinkingly use expressions like “playing housewife” and “Susie Homemaker.” And I would certainly never trust any man–even that rapidly decreasing number who have encouraged their wives to stay home with the children–not to invoke the ugly spectre of the Lazy Housewife when his marriage breaks up.
In fact, in the last five years of my practice of divorce law, I think I have seen a total of one wife of an American-born man who was forbidden to take a job outside the home during the marriage. (Immigrant men still operate by older standards.) I have long since lost count of the number of women I have represented whose husbands demanded that they take jobs, or who punished them really vindictively for quitting (for even the best possible cause) or being fired or laid off or having to quit for reasons of health or pregnancy. Often, the wife’s unemployment was one of the factors precipitating abuse or divorce.
Judges, even the most compassionate, now tend to assume that both parties in a divorce will be working full-time. They award alimony only for short periods, in small amounts, except to women who are really physically incapable of working. On one hand this means an employed wife is in no danger of losing custody of her children because of her vocational duties. But on the other hand, it means that the stay-at-home mother will get little or no credit from the court for her choice, and no compensation for its economic consequences.
Some full-time homemakers apparently blame Betty Friedan and the feminist movement for this state of affairs. It is certainly true that one of the basic premises of Friedan’s ground-breaking book The Feminine Mystique is that most of the time, most full-time middle class suburban homemakers do not actually have enough work to do to constitute a full-time job. The same could be said of a good many government and even corporate employees, of course. It is not, in and of itself, sufficient reason to persecute the underemployed. Friedan was probably not saying that it was. Certainly she was writing to an audience of middle-class women with commodious housing, lots of electrical housekeeping appliances and very few children. As a result, she grossly underestimated how much time it takes a working-class woman to care for an under-equipped and under-sized home and a large brood of children. But the women’s movement in general has been sympathetic to the situation of the full-time homemaker. There is even a small but vocal segment of the movement which advocates the payment of wages for the work women do in managing their own households and rearing their own children.
Most of us, of course, including most stay-at-home mothers, find that idea mind-boggling. At heart even the most pro-domestic-woman of us believes that, while the work involved in raising one’s own children and managing one’s own household may be crucially important and meaningful, it is still not the kind of work that should be paid for. We have bought into the paradoxical fundamental American idea that certain kinds of work can be essential without being important. They should be done either by people who are not needed as primary wage-earners, or (if done by a primary wage-earner) around the edges and during the breaks in her “real” job. We even have trouble with the idea of providing decent wages and working conditions for those whose paid work consists of taking care of other people’s homes and children.
Even those feminists who support wages for housework probably feel pretty much the way most other feminists do, the way I do about full-time homemaking. We honor the women who have chosen this way of life. We will defend to our last breath their right to make this choice. But there is no way on earth we would advise our own daughters to do the same. The woman who makes this choice is choosing dependency. Worse still, she is choosing to depend on something increasingly undependable–the willingness and ability of a man to support an entire household single-handedly. She cannot even be certain that the man who encourages her to make this choice will continue to be willing or able to pay for it. She can be quite sure that, even if he does, she will find her self-respect severely undermined by the patronization or scorn of most of the other people she encounters.
Earlier, this essay referred to Transitional Stages One and Two. What are we transiting to? I suspect the next stage will be the near-equalization of the average male and female wage (mainly through the elimination of highly-paid male-dominated jobs in heavy industry.) This will at least end the current double bind many women are in, which encourages a woman to be the family member most likely to take time out of the paid workforce if any member must do so, because her wages will be a smaller loss to the family economy–and then punishes her for doing so by further diminishing her earning capacity and increasing her burdens in the home.
It may be too utopian to envision, as the step after that, men becoming as likely as women to leave the labor force to care for their young children. It is certainly utopian, at this point, to hope that employers will be willing to provide sufficiently decent wages and benefits to part-time workers that both parents can spend some waking hours with their families and still support them decently. At that point it will actually be possible for both parents to care for their children, while neither is wholly dependent on the other, nor on the state. Surely that is the family we should be striving to form.