It’s no secret that Hilary Rosen, and by extension the DNC, recently stirred up a bit of a debate about women with her recent comments that “Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life.” And for once, it is the Republicans who are defending a woman’s right to choose and vigorously denouncing the tactics of the left in trying to say that Romney is somehow less of a woman because of her choice to stay at home and raise her children. This doesn’t excuse the right’s views on most other things female-oriented, of course, but it certainly did display a chink in the armor (and the ideology) of many “modern women” who consider themselves a proponent of any and all things choice. It is undeniable that in today’s culture, especially amongst the educated and the liberal, there is a certain stigma around deciding to be a full-time mom.
I am the first to admit that I am somewhat biased on this subject, as, though she works full-time now, my mother stayed at home for much of my childhood. My father, as it happens, has worked from home all my life, so I had something of a stay-at-home dad as well. I can only relate for a small portion of my childhood to what it is like to grow up with a mother who works, and I cannot help but feel grateful for the choice my mother made to be at home for me when I was young. But beyond that, my mother is the opposite of what you would consider a soccer mom. She never dressed in J Crew, she’s always had an affinity for blue jokes, she is well-educated and currently finishing a Master’s, she never bought a car with more than two doors, and she once brought me to a showing of her John Waters-esque drag pageant in which she was one of the few actual women. I have seen her eat a placenta made of Fruit Roll Ups on stage. She has been on local news protesting against LGBT discrimination, yelling at the camera crew. Frankly, she’s far more of a badass than I’ll ever be. And, most importantly, she certainly wouldn’t let anyone ever tell her she “had” to stay home if that isn’t what she wanted to do. But when I came around, followed by my sister, it was important for her to be there to make Halloween costumes by hand, to pick us up from the bus stop, to make us a dinner from scratch every night (and teach us her recipes), and to tuck us in after a story and a few shadow puppet plays on the wall. As a child, it was heaven itself, getting to spend so much time with my own personal Wonder Woman.
But it is no secret that she often felt the sting of judgment from friends, from family members, from former coworkers, from the media itself — the message was clear: There is an “easy way out,” and she was taking it. We have show after movie after show that casually demeans and dismisses the stay-at-home mom while exalting the “Superwoman” who can work 80 hours a week, go out with her friends for cocktails, and still manage to barely see her children and feel perpetually guilty about it. I remember watching the movie I Don’t Know How She Does It recently, and stopping halfway through, because I found it incredibly offensive. As a young, working woman I am supposed to emulate Sarah Jessica Parker’s spread-too-thin character, while joining her in snickering at the moms who have nothing but time, and don’t even know the meaning of “hard work.” I am supposed to see myself in that proverbial image of the woman in the slim skirt suit with the briefcase in one hand, the martini glass in the other, a baby cradled in her arm, and an exasperated look on her face. There is a message being conveyed relentlessly that if I am intelligent, fun, interesting, and worth talking to — I shouldn’t be wasting my time raising children. I should be in the working world, actually doing something with my life. And I can’t help but make the connection that, by that logic, no matter how many interesting, fun, challenging things my mother did while raising me — both in and outside the home — at the end of the day, she was still “just a mom,” and therefore worth inherently less than a woman who embodied all the same qualities, but embodied them at a 9-5 job.
My mother always insisted that she had children because she wanted them more than anything, and that she stayed at home to raise us because she believed “there was no one more qualified for the job.” Surely this mentality has gone out of fashion, but is there not still a grain of truth to it? You have children for all the magic and nuance they will bring to your life, would you not want to spend as much time as possible with them? And even if you do hire help, there is certainly a point at which you’ve stopped bringing in some extra hands in the afternoon and started passing off the raising of your children onto someone else. There are countless families who hire help for 50 or more hours a week, who barely see the children they have brought into this world. And yet, with the way we’ve constructed the hierarchy, it is doubtful that those women would catch nearly as much flack as the woman who eschewed nannies altogether and stayed to raise the child. There is just a system of worth now, and much of it is based on what you contribute financially and professionally, on how much power you accrue.
Women go to college more than men now, they get better grades, and in many cities, young women are outperforming men in the “getting hired initially” department — a crucial point on which much of this whole system hinges. It’s undeniable that we’re going further and further in a direction in which revealing you are a stay at home mother will elicit the same reaction (and the same judgment) as someone who worked all day would have received fifty years ago. There is an immediate assessment of character, and a wondering about why she couldn’t make it in the “real world.” And I’m sure that for many people meeting my mother, articulate and witty as she is, there was no amount of cunning she could have displayed to get out of the box that stay-at-home motherhood had put her in. It was just a defining characteristic about who she is, and until she joined the ranks of the working, it wouldn’t be escaped.
But perhaps the saddest part of this whole situation is that it’s most often other women who are quick to point the finger and make the snide comment about the full-time mom. Perhaps there is a fear that she will give the impression that all women are still like that, or still hold that as their ideal. Perhaps women feel the pressure to justify their choice to be in the professional world, because they are still, in many industries, not fully integrated. Perhaps there is a mote of jealousy, especially towards women who fully embrace their choice to stay at home and make no judgments about a woman who chooses to work. There are many women who feel the strain of having to balance a booming career with the pressures of motherhood, and the grass must surely look greener occasionally for women who aren’t juggling with the former. Whatever the reason, though, it’s incredibly disheartening to hear a woman — especially a woman as intelligent and accomplished as Rosen — make the assertion that a mother has never worked a day in her life. How insulting to motherhood itself, to the complexity and difficulty that comes with raising a child, and to the children who have nothing but fond, grateful memories of the time they got to spend with the parent who stayed home to care for them. There is no reason that our professional success as a gender should come at the expense of those who take the other route. There is nothing shameful or lazy about choosing to be a full-time mother, and it’s about time we started respecting a woman’s right to choose.