The always thought-provoking Linda Hirschman wrote an op-ed that appeared yesterday in the NYTimes, Off to Work She Should Go.
Here’s one excerpt that stopped me in my tracks:
What has changed in the last decade is that the job of motherhood has ramped up. Mothers today spend more time on child care than women did in 1965, a time when mothers were much less likely to have paying jobs, family scholars report.
I’m not sure how one validates the statement, “Mothers today spend more time on child care than women did in 1965,” but based on my own observations and childhood recollections, the statement rings true. I am constantly taken aback by the amount of time, the level of commitment and involvement put into the lives of their children that I observe among so many mothers I know today. Sometimes, it seems to me, there is no minutiae of their child’s psyche, playtime, school day or even the families of their playmates that is unknown, un-analyzed or left un-deconstructed.
Compared to my own mother’s “go outside and play” attitude, followed by locking the screen door behind us while she spent an uninterrupted hour on the phone with her best friend, today’s mother seems more like her child’s super-hero partner, a constant, hovering presence ready to swoop-in and perform a rescue operation whenever a peep is heard.
Is that a bad thing? The mothers I know are raising wonderful children who will most likely realize their full capabilities as they grow-up and become adults. Isn’t that what we as a society want for all our children?
Of course, the answer to the last question is “yes,” but increasingly, whether or not an individual child reaches his or her full potential is dependent on the larger issue of class. Children born into one class get a full-time mother-advocate to clear their path in the world. Children born into the other class get mothers who have been mandated by law to work long hours at minimum-wage jobs. One class gets well-endowed private schools. The other, under-funded public schools. One class of children gets music lessons, art classes, science labs, travel opportunities. The other class couldn’t tell you the difference between an arpeggio, a gesso or a gerund.
I know these differences have always existed, but never, it seems to me, has the gap been so wide between the “haves” and the “have nots” as they are today. For the “haves,” being able to opt out of the workforce in exchange for what Hirschman refers to as the ramped up job of motherhood, the choice is becoming a birthright of class. (Whether or not this is a true choice is a matter of debate. If it were a true choice, wouldn’t just as many men be opting out of the workforce to become the stay-at-home parent?)
With each well-educated, accomplished career woman who drops out of the workforce, the mothers who remain lose an important, influential voice for family-friendly work policies, for better health benefits for those who utilize our health care system the most (women and children.) We lose role-models, mentors and advocates for higher wages. For the “have nots,” it’s like pressing a face against that screen door. Visible, but left to fend for themselves.