Most people who post comments on this blog do so on the most recent posts. But sometimes someone finds a post from past years floating around the internet somewhere, and the person wanders here to leave a comment. When I’m moderating comments I see them in the order they come in, so this one, excerpted in the title, was on top of the queue yesterday.
The commenter was writing about my 2014 review of The Nesting Place. The review was not necessarily about mothers working, per se, though the topic did come up. The gist of the story is that the author of The Nesting Place was in dire financial straits in part because she expected her husband to provide for the family, which he turned out to have some trouble doing. They moved 14 times, once needing to get rid of the family dog in the process. Once she took over the breadwinning role, the family started doing a lot better. I noted that this might have been a topic for the couple to discuss earlier, but both were wedded to certain narratives of which gender was supposed to do what.
Our commenter noted, quite reasonably, that in a true partnership, a parent who stays home with the kids has an equally important role as the breadwinning parent. But then we got this: “I think, if Laura is honest with herself, there may be a tiny bit of resentment toward moms who are afforded the luxury of raising their own children versus having a daycare do it. I’ve met many women who’ve said they wish they could have been home with their kids in those early formative years. I’ve NEVER met a mom who said she wished she’d worked more.”
Leaving aside speculation about my finances or resentment or what have you, it is interesting to raise the question of the “luxury” of full time caregiving. I blame Lisa Belkin’s 2003 New York Times article, The Opt-Out Revolution, for creating a misleading impression among the public of who stay-at-home moms are. Belkin wrote a smart, well-researched and influential story about corporate executives, lawyers and Wall Street high-flyers who left the work force because their similarly credentialed husbands earned enough that they could. These women’s stories are important if one is trying to figure out why more women aren’t in the top echelons of the working world. But these rarified families aren’t exactly typical. In reality, the average stay-at-home mom is younger, and has less education than the average mom in the workforce. When Redbook and I surveyed stay-at-home moms last spring, we found the majority lived in families earning less than $75,000 a year. If mom cannot earn enough to cover the cost of childcare, then families decide it makes sense — at least in the short run — for her to stay home. (Unfortunately, many families also can’t actually afford to go without mom’s income either. It’s quite a bind, leading to the rise of a lot of freelancing during nap time and the like. Redbook and I found that a third of SAHMs worked during the previous day, and six in ten contributed income to their families).
While our commenter claims to have never met a mom who wished she’d worked more, this may be a matter of not looking very hard. When the Pew Research Center surveyed mothers about their choices in 2012, they found that only 20 percent of all mothers said their ideal situation would be not to work at all. Indeed, of mothers who are not employed, about 40 percent say they’d like to work part-time, and 22 percent would like to work full time. That’s quite a few mothers who’d like to work more. Indeed, it’s the majority of mothers currently at home with their children.
But I think the most problematic part of this comment — well, other than the idea that 40 hours of childcare out of 168 hours in a week means someone else is raising your kid — is that work and time with kids are inevitably at odds with each other. This can only be true if work and childcare are the only activities that fill women’s time. In reality, women do a variety of things with their hours. They sleep, for instance. They do housework. They do errands. Some might watch TV. I found a statistic the other day that the average social media consumer spends 116 minutes per day on these sites. Women spend time in the car. They see friends, their spouses, and other family members. They volunteer. They read. They exercise or do hobbies. Time with children and time spent at work could both rise if some of the other categories fell enough. Over the entire population, this is exactly what happened between the 1960s and today. Women started doing a lot less housework. Indeed, there was almost an hour by hour trade-off, averaged over the entire population, of housework for paid work. Time spent with children rose.
Anyway, I know on a personal level that if I wanted to work more, I could do so without spending a second less with my children. I could work at night more instead of reading. I do not have to run every day. I could spend less time distracted on the internet. Indeed, looking back on my life, I imagine I could have written another book or two, or promoted them better, if I spent more time working and less time reading silly headlines and getting sucked into pointless online discussions. So there we go. If we’re making sweeping statements based on anecdotes, our commenter can say she now knows at least one mom who would have liked to have worked more.