Here’s an encouraging news flash: stay-at-home mothers are on the rise in the US. In fact, our numbers have been increasing steadily for the past fifteen years. This trend is not just among those who have the ‘luxury’ of doing so (whatever that means): mums opting to stay at home range from the highly educated to the uneducated; from those who don’t have to worry about money to those who have to worry about it very much.
Not that this is anything to celebrate among the liberal establishment. For them it is, by all counts, a worry.
There are two general arguments one always hears as to why the stay-at-home mother is ‘bad’. The first has to do with the feminist equality project. If women are going to be equal to men, then they have to hold an equal number of high-ranking positions to men in business, government, law, medicine, etc. The woman who lets her family interfere with her career undermines this goal, and defects from the sisterhood. She also wastes her education, and, because she gives up her paycheck, becomes a nonentity who no longer actually does anything.
The second argument has to do with financial equality. When a woman stops working, the argument goes, her earning potential is reduced massively. With Obama’s latest pledge to tackle inequality, the family has been noted by New York Times writer Judith Woods as the fundamental source of inequality in society. Kids born into poor families are given fewer opportunities and have less invested in them, and thus become poor adults. She argues that keeping a mother in work is one of the ‘keys’ to curing this inequality over generations.
So, what could women be thinking? With less money, boredom and obscurity on the horizon, what could possibly induce them to be at home?
I suggest that the liberal/feminist confusion on this issue stems from their lack of recognition of one crucial factor: the parent/child relationship. Like an annoying fly that you just can’t swat, this issue keeps reappearing.
The feminists shout at us that we need not, and must not, think that parenting requires time. Indeed, they argue that your child will benefit most when you do not spend time with them. If you are educated, your child will benefit most from seeing you ‘use’ that education – away from them. If you struggle financially, they will benefit most from you working – away from them. The implication is that pursuing feminist equality and financial equality is of greater worth to a child’s well-being than the quality of parenting that he experiences.
The problem is that this message isn’t true. At least, that has been my experience. I taught at university when my oldest was four and my second was nearly two, with another child on the way. My workflow was constant, and there was simply no time to spend with my children. When I was home, I could not engage with them in any meaningful way: I had to put them in front of multiple movies in order to get work done, or take them to the park and refuse their requests to play with them. I was up until midnight and up again at 4:30am most days. I was stressed, and that affected my children. My four-year-old started wetting herself, even if she was just a few feet from a toilet.
During this experience, it became very clear to me that I needed time to be a good parent. Aiming for greatness as a female in academia and earning a second income were fine pursuits, to be sure. But their benefits paled in comparison as I considered the kind of parent that I wanted to be. I wanted to have the time, and the physical and emotional energy, to respond to their needs. I couldn’t do that if I was always somewhere else.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Even a leading feminist, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has made similar observations. In her 2012 article, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All’, she explains why she left her position in the Obama Administration so that she could spend more time with her teenage son. And, in a remarkable TED talk given in 2013, she argues that as a society we need to find a way to value home care, just as we value professional success.
There are some things that money cannot buy and for which professional success cannot atone. A good parent/child relationship is just such a thing. Stay-at-home mothers know this. Perhaps that’s why our numbers are rising.