I had the unpleasant experience recently of sitting next to a twenty-something magazine editor at a social gathering in New York who was outraged by part-time working mothers like his boss, who, he says, dump all their work on people like him so they can indulge in a private "family romance." Since I am a part-time working mother myself, I felt driven to defend my sister breeders and their families against this guy's view that the moral life consists of ‘round-the-clock work, while people who want to spend time with their children are lazy parasites. Within a short time, we'd managed to drive our dining companions from the table.
Though I immediately regretted getting into the argument, I've since been thinking that it was worth having. It made me aware that what I view as a perfectly benign and nonthreatening pursuit--going on the slow track at work, so you can take care of your kids--is actually a new cultural hot button. For several years now, I've read periodic articles about the rise of the "child-free" movement (a group of people who apparently see having babies as akin to catching lice). People who don't want to have kids are building their own no-kids-allowed gated communities, agitating for no-kids-allowed restaurants, and, of course, complaining about paying taxes to support public schools. There are also plenty of single workers like my dinner companion who seem pissed off about colleagues taking maternity leave or going part time.
But the whole anti-child political argument strikes me as a new phenomenon. Remember when, during the rise of welfare reform in the 1980s and early 1990s, pro-welfare-reform politicians like Tommy Thompson (then governor of Wisconsin) argued that since middle-class women can't afford to stay at home with their children, poor women shouldn't be able to stay home either? Here’s where the stinginess of that philosophy comes back to bite us all on the butt: now that we've done away with welfare, my twenty-something editor friend argues, it is elitist and unfair for middle-class women to be able to take time off with their children. First, we increased the misery of poor families through welfare reform. Now, we need to spread the misery around. Talk about a race to the bottom. The situation would be different if low and moderate-income families had the option of great, affordable, high-quality child care. But no such thing exists in this country since we view the "family romance" as a private matter.
The truth is that women have been doing this work for so long for free that it seems completely ridiculous to our society to have to pay for it. If we hold the work of caring for small children in such low esteem, it stands to reason that we could end up in a situation where we argue both that women should work full time (which now means more than 40 hours a week) and that we shouldn't have to pony up a major public investment in child care.
Where does that leave mothers, who still do the majority of childcare, not to mention a staggering amount of housework, in addition to their full-time jobs? It leaves them in a pretty lousy situation.
Former New York Times economics reporter Ann Crittenden, author of “The Price of Motherhood” and “If You've Raised Kids You Can Manage Anything,” argues this point brilliantly in her books and in various guest columns and essays. She has a short piece in the current issue of Glamour magazine that I hope reaches millions of young women who are just encountering the new brand of sexism in the workplace, which seems wonderfully egalitarian when you're single and woefully discriminatory once you have kids.
In a debate entitled "Do Women Choose to Earn Less than Men?" Warren Farrell, author of “Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap--and What Women Can Do About It,” answers yes. "Women tend to opt for less technical jobs, often with better hours--in PR, the arts, or education, that typically pay less," Farrell writes. “If women want big salaries," they can pick careers like engineering, he continues. "Then put in long hours on the job. People who work 44 hours a week make nearly twice as much as people who work 34 hours a week."
To which Crittenden replies: "Caring for children or elderly parents isn't just a lifestyle decision; it's a societal necessity." Yet the American corporate model of work demands that your loyalty to your employer come before any such human concerns. "In many industries the ideal worker continues to be someone who has no family (or is willing to act like it)." Not surprisingly, mothers don't find the tradeoff worth it. Some find that asking for a more flexible work schedule, in exchange for less pay, means not just resentment or condescension but being fired. It doesn't have to be this way "Studies show countries with family-friendly policies, like paid leave and universal preschool, have less of a wage gap because women can combine paid work with family time," Crittenden writes.
Unfortunately, such civilized cultures are not on the rise. The much-derided "social welfare state" is under attack even in Europe. The twenty-something editor I was telling you about was quick to point out that France may have universal preschool, but it also has a high unemployment rate. Mixing up the logic of global capitalism and morality, he simultaneously declared himself on the side of the working poor who have no safety net in the United States (against lazy middle class moms who don't work full time) and the multinational corporations (against a lazy European populace that wants to retain a slow pace of life that values vacations and family meals more than 80-hour workweeks).
It makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that this would be where the work/family argument of the last generation would lead. First, Americans came to see Aid to Families with Dependent Children as the enemy of the good. Forcing poor, single women with babies into the low-wage workforce became somehow morally right, not to mention an anti-poverty measure. (As if there were no such thing as a dead-end job. As if leaving kids in crack-house/daycare centers, or just locking them in the house and hoping for the best would somehow propel them into the middle class.) Now we have the I-work-around-the-clock-and-so-should-you ethic reaching upward to drag us all into the turbo-capitalist machine.
If we don't start making social policy that protects us from the business-uber-alles monster, we're going to find every noncash value in our lives subsumed. Family? Leisure? Art? Intellectual pursuits? Hobbies? Cooking? Health? Time with friends? Forget about it.
Of course, there is one large segment of society that is still very interested in domestic and family life. But guess what? Their plan is not exactly warm and fuzzy either.
In Foreign Policy Magazine--www.foreignpolicy.com--Phillip Longman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, writes that liberals, secular humanists, and feminists are going extinct. The reason is that people with liberal values are having no children, or only one, while conservatives and fundamentalists are breeding like mad--and creating a far more conservative future.
"This dynamic helps explain, for example, the gradual drift of American culture away from secular individualism and toward religious fundamentalism. Among states that voted for President Bush in 2004, fertility rates are 12 percent higher than in states that voted for Sen. John Kerry," Longman writes.
It's an interesting and timely argument.
There's not much we can do about the demographic trends. But at the very least, before it's too late, we dwindling numbers of feminists and progressives need to get our act together and start arguing for a more humane, child-friendly society instead of taking the side of profit-mad business, which is in no danger of losing its hold on power, and certainly doesn't need any help from us.