Battlepanda: The Mommy trap


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Mommy trap

This scathing article by Linda Hirshman about the elite stay-at-home mom phenomenon is the antidote to a thousand NY Times fluff articles about the "Opt-out revolution". She doesn't deny that elite women are choosing to stay at home in droves. But what drives their choice? And what are the ramifications of that choice on our society? If you are interested in the subject, it is read the whole thing material. But it is long, so here are a few choice snips:

Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, “A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.”[snip]

Why should society spend resources educating women with only a 50-percent return rate on their stated goals? The American Conservative Union carried a column in 2004 recommending that employers stay away from such women or risk going out of business. Good psychological data show that the more women are treated with respect, the more ambition they have. And vice versa. The opt-out revolution is really a downward spiral. [snip]

A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives. At feminism’s dawning, two theorists compared gender ideology to a caste system. To borrow their insight, these daughters of the upper classes will be bearing most of the burden of the work always associated with the lowest caste: sweeping and cleaning bodily waste. Not two weeks after the Yalie flap, the Times ran a story of moms who were toilet training in infancy by vigilantly watching their babies for signs of excretion 24-7. They have voluntarily become untouchables.

I do not wish to denigrate family life. And I enjoy domesticity too much myself to agree whole-heartedly with Hirshman's dim view of it. But to misquote Shakespeare, nothing is either good or bad, but context makes it so. For instance, I love to cook (as does my boyfriend). For me it is a wonderful, relaxing, creative hobby. But I would not like to live in a society where cooking duties are automatically allocated to me because I am female -- that would make it drudgery and oppression even if I were to spend exactly the same numbers of hours each week cooking the same food. What is the context in which people ditch their jobs to stay at home and sprog? Inevitably, it is the woman who makes the sacrifice.

The top reason stay-at-home moms give for their choice is "it's better for the child". I suppose the argument is that having a Ivy-league educated woman wait hand-and-foot on kids maximizes their development in a way that daycare cannot match. But how much better? Lets use money as a crude yardstick and unit of measurement for human achievement and effort. We will be generous and assume that every elite stay-at-home mom loses only 50% of her lifetime income as a result of leaving her career to have kids. This means that, assuming she has two kids, they will have to each make a whopping 25% more as a result of her sacrifice in order for the family to "break even". I doubt that is a likely result even if the mom in question takes the trouble to watch little Johnny 24/7 for signs of every impending bowel movement so that he would not ever be subjected to a soggy diaper.

Yes, I understand the brute reductionism of lives into dollars is detestable. But sometimes a little bit of brutality is needed to cut through the bull.Intangibles benefits are cheap to bestow. If we as a society really value a stay-at-home parent so much, why is it that men almost never make this choice? I think it is more likely that this trend reveals the low value we place on women as a society rather than the high value we place on having a stay-at-home parent. In short, Hirshman is onto something.