by Sarah Eichberg, Ph.D.
The recent media firestorm over the ‘mommy wars,” shows just how socially relevant and significant the debate remains. Yet, as in previous disputes over the contributions of working and stay-at-home mothers, white, affluent women were rhetorically privileged and the varied interests and experiences of all other women ignored.
In their arguments, most politicians and pundits routinely presented a false binary of “choice,” as if mothers act independently of social context and are free to remain at home or in the labor force. But the simple fact is that most American women do not have the luxury to choose.
As they are framed, the mommy war debates deny the multiple constraints women face daily –in and out of the home–which restrict autonomy and create challenges to caring for their families’ economic, psychological and physical well-being.
Today, 70.8% of mothers are in the labor force, either working for pay or looking for a job. The reality is that in most two parent households, it takes two incomes to thrive or even survive. As real wages for men have declined over the past 30-40 years, women’s earning have become critical to even approximating a middle class existence. For many women, it’s either work or lose your home or forego healthcare or endure food insecurity.
What’s more, the “decision” to stay at home is not necessarily born out of a desire to leave a job. Many women are forced out by unfriendly work environments– low pay, inflexible parental leave – and a societal apathy toward affordable childcare that makes it impossible for women to earn a living and care for their children at the same time. As of 2009, there were 5.7 million married stay-at-home mothers in America. Rather than suburban soccer moms, the greatest concentration of married stay at home moms was young, Hispanic, foreign-born and without high school or college degrees. It is quite likely that many of these women need to work but lack the education and skills to find the high wage jobs that cover childcare costs.
The recent conversation about motherhood and choice becomes even more perverse when juxtaposed with current attacks on federal benefits, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Food Stamps, which offer low-income women, married or not, a key means to maintain some degree of economic self-sufficiency, by helping them put food on the table. With the dismantling of welfare in the 1990s, SNAP has become the first-line of defense against poverty. Even reducing these benefits would make millions of mothers and their children vulnerable to hunger, chronic health conditions, and mental distress.
As recent events show, this country remains conflicted about working mothers but not because of a quarrel over choice. Instead, we still have not become reconciled–in belief or in policy–to shifting gender roles (where are the fathers in all these discussions?) or the nation’s profound gap between the haves and the have-nots. As long as we – men and women – accept false narratives of equality and allow politicians and pundits to cynically frame our real life experiences as simple expressions of free-will, we will forever find ourselves trapped in rhetorical mommy wars, while the real issues of gender and economic justice are ignored.
Dr. Sarah Eichberg is the Director of Community Research of Adelphi University’s Institute for Social Research and Community Engagement (iSoRCE), whose mission is is twofold to generate actionable knowledge through collaborative social research, and to use that knowledge to better understand and address Long Island’s critical and enduring social issues.