Parenting in a Bad Economy

Quality time with your little one can't be beat (msn.com).

Quality time with your little one can’t be beat (msn.com).

The New York Times magazine’s current cover story reads like an article in search of a trend. The Times interviewed three educated women who stayed home with their young children and are now ready to work again. The article may induce anxiety in stay-at-home mothers and validate working mothers, but does it really teach us anything useful about modern motherhood?

As an educated woman, I champion hard work and ambition. But as a mother who has traded a hard-charging speechwriting career for home-based freelance work (for now), I sensed four blind spots in this Times article:

First, there is no sense of respect for the parents – mostly women – who prioritize our children. Parenting may be universal, but parenting well takes significant time and energy. It’s a shame that our culture neither recognizes that effort, which benefits parents and children, as well as society in the long-term, nor rewards parents for it when they return to work, either part-time or full-time.

Second, both this article and Lisa Belkin’s original 2003 article  are tinged by some underlying feminist bewilderment, even discomfort, at the choice the studied subjects have made. The feminism I prefer is the one that embraces choice. I respect that not all women want to stay home with their children – assuming that’s an option – but I deserve to be respected too. Some feminists disapprove of educated women staying home, as if embracing motherhood is unbecoming. I believe my life is my own, and I shouldn’t have to work long hours in some office, simply to break glass ceilings for the feminist cause.

Third, “Opt-out Generation” seems like a misnomer. One woman summarized the lifestyle for Belkin thus: “’It’s not black and white; it’s gray. You’re working. Then you’re not working. Then maybe you’re working part time or consulting. Then you go back. This is a chapter, not the whole book .’”

Of course, “eighty-nine percent of those who ‘off-ramped,’ . . . said they wanted to resume work”. So, these women don’t necessarily want to exit the workforce. Rather, they prefer to lavish time and attention on their young children, before working again. That’s my plan too. My daughter will be young only once, but the need for speechwriters will always be there.

Fourth, the crux of this article admittedly embodies my worst professional nightmare. The thought that re-entering the workforce could be impossible, not merely difficult, is scary. Of the aforementioned 89% of mothers who planned to work, “only 73 percent of these succeeded in getting back in, and only 40 percent got full-time jobs”.

What struck me about those statistics was that Warner offered them in isolation. She noted that “the economic landscape had changed greatly since these women . . . decided to leave work and head home. . . . [and] even once rock-solid fields like law were becoming insecure in ways that no one had previously thought possible .” Yet, Warner doesn’t really write about these women as job hunters in the context of our shaky economic recovery.

To be sure, in the current economy, it is economically risky for adults to let their professional skills or networks atrophy. However, if the women in this article had re-entered the workplace in a stronger economy, or one interviewee’s marriage had survived, that point might be moot.

The featured mothers left the labor force by choice, but I suspect that in a weak economy, they are simply in the same boat as the long-term unemployed, having not worked full-time for years.

The New York Times reported in June: “The long-term jobless seem to be having trouble finding work across industries . . . Discrimination does seem to be a major factor . . . the reality remains that the longer a worker is out of a job, the slimmer and slimmer the chance of being rehired”. That’s bad news for American workers, regardless of whether they were stay-at-home parents.

Yale alumna Amy Cunningham Atkinson wisely told Warner, “Real women’s empowerment is being able to do what you want to when you want to.” Let’s hope that the economy improves enough that all parents have the option to choose when, and how much, to work.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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