Monday, January 09, 2006

Melancholy Monday: Mommy Wars or Class Wars?

Yesterday I caught up with a dear friend who is a business litigator for a big firm in Chicago. She is the same age as me, partner in her law firm, and has three children. We met in college while we were both studying philosophy in Rome. Together the two of us travelled, hitchhiked and got into all sorts of trouble. I always enjoy talking to her and feel restored by the experience.

In particular Janine (not her real name) and I commiserated over the spate of "mommy wars" articles that have shown up in the NYTimes of late. She confessed to me that she carried an editorial written by Linda Hirshman around in her purse so she would remember to talk to her other working mom friends about the implications of Hirshman's research.

While I have already explored Hirshman's piece and Brooks' weak attempt at a rebuttal elsewhere, what I want to write about today is the inherent selfishness of elite women who "opt-out" of the workforce to stay at home and raise children because they can. Yes, that is right: selfishness. I know those sound like strong words, but talking to Janine really clarified for me how class issues do still tear apart the feminist movement in this country.

Janine reminded me of a fact that she shares with me almost everytime we speak: women over 60 are the poorest segment of our population. She also pointed out how incredibly undervalued stay at home mothers are. She told me that the way to determine what the economic value is for mothers is to pay attention, believe it or not, to personal injury law where people try to put a cash value on the horrific death of a young mother. Janine explained that they rate the worth of mothers by extrapolating from blue collar jobs.

"Raising children is really hard. It's way more difficult than trying to make partner at a law firm," Janine noted. Nonetheless, the cash value of mommyhood really tells us how powerful the kitchen is. When women have sacrificed themselves to raise children, and they are then left by their husbands seeking a younger, sexier woman, these stay at home mothers become impoverished divorcees.

And I am audacious enough to call elite women who stay at home to do this important work selfish. Why? Simple, because when they "opt out" of the workforce and hence never achieve positions of power and influence--things their education and intelligence can do for them--they hurt all women, particularly middle-class and working class mothers who simply cannot stay home with children.

Janine was remarking on the stark difference between the lives of the women who are secretaries at her law firm, and working to make ends meet, which often requires having to work another job to pay for childcare, and women who have now benefitted from feminists breaking the barriers in education and the professions, who find a wealthy husband and give up their careers.

Sure, it is invaluable to be there to raise your children, especially when you are smart. No one can do a better job than you can anyway. I get it. I get why a woman would choose to do it.

But, when they make that decision, they fail to see how their own choices are bound up with the lack of opportunities for less advantaged women to make the same choice.

The workplace is still unforgiving to mothers. It punishes women who miss work for a sick child, and it doesn't adjust its hours to school hours. The only way to transform the workplace and make it better accomodate all parents (not just women) is to get more women into positions of power. And the very women capable of changing institutions are instead leaving the workforce to raise their own kids.

Plato duly noted in the Republic that the problem with nuclear families is that it focuses the attention of parents to their children only, and therefore they care less about the well-being of all children. Likewise, the problem with upper-class women with privilege and potential to change the world is that they threaten to care only about their own choices and forget about the plight of other women who have few resources to fight institutionalized sexism which haunts all mothers with the spectre of poverty.

Feminism to this feminista is not about extending the right to care only about my own choices and my own life to elite women too. Feminism is about empowering all women and challenging all institutions that assume or prescribe what women should do or be. If these women believe that their actions are indeed the fulfillment of the feminism dream, then indeed the neo-cons are right: feminists do want to become just like men.

UPDATE: The comments on this post are worth reading. But, what is also worth considering when you are reading this post is that this was fundamentally inspired by criticisms hurled at "elite" mothers who decide to continue working after having children. These mothers are all too frequently called selfish for their choice. Alternatively, women with less resources, particularly if they rely on entitlement programs, are pushed to work and abandon their children if they want to keep receiving benefits. We idolize the self-sacrificing mother who stays home to raise children if she is wealthy enough to do so, and we punish the impoverished woman who looks for resources to allow her to stay home and raise her children and not give up her whole pay check to daycare.