The “Choices” Mothers Make

At Ten Miles Square, the Progressive Policy Institute’s Anne Kim looks at the rekindled “Mommy Wars” over the choices women make in arranging their domestic and professional lives, and makes the important point that it’s often not a choice at all:

[B]y imbuing every mother’s circumstances with the gloss of “choice,” we end up ignoring the very real discussions we should be having about such issues as the lack of affordable quality child care, the continuing unwillingness of employers to provide flexibility at the workplace and the long-term economic impacts of taking a break from the workforce. These are the factors that make the “choice” between career and family so illusory for so many women.

In a remarkable survey of 3,781 mothers conducted in May 2010, the Working Mother Research Institute and Ernst and Young found that 55% of “career-oriented stay-at-home” moms would prefer to be working, while at the same time 71% of moms “equate work with something done only to pick up a paycheck.” In other words, many women who are in one arrangement would prefer to be in another.

Economic incentives and disincentives, Kim notes, often push and pull mothers in different directions, and punish their “choice” in either event. Stay-at-home moms forego badly needed income; those who work face prohibitive costs for quality child care, and if they return to work after an “interruption” to fulfill parenting responsibilities, they lose status and income. Low-income women who work also often lose public benefits, offsetting their limited wages.

Changing the terms of the debate to a real-life evaluation of what parents actually need to balance work and family–from the community and from employers–is the key step beyond today’s culturally-saturated arguments.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.