So there was this piece in the New York Times magazine on October26, 2003, about how women who were formerly on the American fast track (Ivy League college, well-compensated professionals, etc.) are now overachieving at the stay-at-home mom thing -- excuse me, stepping off the fast track without guilt. Author Lisa Belkin hauled out some sociobiology (or "so-so biology," as at least one Harvard biologist has dubbed it) and generally wrote a story justifying her friends' new lifestyles and called it a trend. We all know that the New York Times doesn't offer free archives, but you can read a PDF elsewhere.
Apparently, I was not the only person irritated by this story.
The Wall Street Journal, whom nobody in their right mind associates with lefty progressive thinking, trod the territory of parental role revolution long before Belkin did. Like, at least two years beforehand, when Sue Shellenbarger looks at how a couple without the benefit of a law partnership or two handles the challenge of halving the income while adjusting to shifting roles in the marriage.
Jeff Opdyke wrote in his August 18, 2002 "Love or Money" column, "
Is that selfish? You could argue it is. Then again, I could argue that happy parents enjoying their jobs, displaying a strong work ethic and creating a feeling of financial security send an equally valid message to a child. We don't love him any less just because we like our careers, and he knows that in his own five-year-old way.
Sue Shellenbarger's June 26, 2003 Work and Family column, "The New PreNup: Whose Job Comes First, Who Stays Home?" proposes:
Maybe it is time for a new kind of prenuptial agreement -- an "economic prenup." Such a pact wouldn't be legally binding; it could simply be an unwritten understanding or an informal written checklist. It would lay ground rules for keeping a marriage together, rather than splitting assets in a divorce, as conventional prenuptial agreements do.
The rest of the column talks about what to hash out in this prenup, like relocations due to job transfers, and who handles the housework. More radically, it offers the idea that both partners have the same range of options.
That same day, Terri Cullen's "Fiscally Fit" column hashed out "Three Reasons to Pause before Taking Your Husband's Name."
(Which is a fine time for me to digress about a completely different publication: Salon ran a hilariously awful piece "Mrs. Feminist," where Lynn Harris sets up a false premise(i.e., the big, bad feminists want her to feel bad for changing her name) and demolishes it, and the equally comical letters in favor of Harris's "argument." Did I talk about this already? If I did, it was during the move, and I was addled. Apologies.)
An August 26, 2003 story looks at something more interesting than college-educated women staying home: "Stay-at-home Dads Fight Stigma."
Sue Shellenbarger's Work and Family column on October 16, 2003, "The Sole Breadwinner's Lament," lays out a world of pressureBelkin completely ignores:
Imagine volunteering for a lifestyle that forces you to give up nearly half your household income, sell your toys, forgo vacations of the kind your friends enjoy, and work as if three or four lives depended on your next paycheck.
She revisited the issue in her November 6 mailbag, where one man wrote in:
Here's the problem: She wants to have three kids, and wants to stay home with them until all of them are in school. Unfortunately, I won't be making enough money to be able to support them without a financial struggle. She makes good money as a Big Four accountant, so her staying home would be a big financial hit for us.
I feel like such a failure that I can't fulfill my girlfriend's hopes and desires. Any advice?
I keep returning to this point -- someone staying home should not be one person's dream at the expense of someone else's peace of mind. The Belkin story bugged the crap out of me because it seemed selfish and sexist, and completely missed the point as to why some mothers might keep working or have to stop.
I'm not the only one: Bee Lavender of HipMama commented on it on November 19, 2003 in "Personal Voices: Revolution or Regression," with:
Using the word "revolution" in the context of this [SAHM conversatioon] is particularly repugnant in light of the fact that welfare reform has forced a whole generation of mothers into under-paid employment and their children into sketchy childcare. The continuing economic slide and disintegration of social programs will only make the split between poor women and rich women more pronounced, and cause deep anxiety for those of us who live somewhere in the middle.
Susan J. Douglas weighed in around the same time on Alternet with:
But, you know, when the real story is about capitalism run amok, it's commonplace to turn it into a story about a human failing, in this case the failure of feminists. So let's be clear about who has really failed mothers, including the privileged ones in this article. First: Congress and successive presidential administrations. For decades, the federal government has refused to provide a quality national daycare system, decent maternity and paternity leaves, or after-school programs. Second: much, though not all, of corporate America and the preposterous workaholic culture it fosters.
Fellow lefty Katha Pollitt writes "There They Go Again" in The Nation on Oct. 30:
"The women's movement was largely about grabbing a fair share of power--making equal money, standing at the helm in the macho realms of business and government and law," [Belkin] writes. But feminism was never about shoulder pads and power suits, or taking "only the shortest of maternity leaves," or "becoming a man." Feminism is about changing the ground rules, not just entering the game.
The libertarian Reason ran a surprisingly similar takefrom Cathy Young:
But in many cases, perhaps, it's not that the women have less power but that the men have less freedom. Society still tends to frown on a man who "opts out"—and few successful women are willing to support such a choice by their husbands. If the wife cuts back on work, the husband will likely be forced to work longer hours.
And I'm still not giving credit to Joan Walsh for her shred job on Lisa Belkin in Salon the day after the article ran, including this part:
There's a smug assurance in Belkin's piece that the women who've "opted out" figured out some secret about the world. But the secret is, motherhood is consuming and tiring. It's also temporary, or at least the consuming, tiring part is. And then you're back in the world. What are you going to do there?
For the last, best word, read the extremely well-researched "The Least Worst Choice" on the Mothers' Movement website. More statistics than you can shake a stick at, and a paragraph that sums up what Belkin may have been trying to get at between book club discussions:
For mothers -- who, by contemporary cultural standards, are still expected to carry the primary burden of family care -- conforming to the uncompromising grind of the "ideal" worker is nearly impossible. According to Williams, mothers on the professional career track face "Three unattractive choices. They remain in a good job that keeps them away from home 10to 12 hours a day, or they take a part-time [job] with depressed wages, few benefits and no advancement. Or they quit."
The real problem here isn't that some college-educated women feel bad about their choices, or that some other women feel resentful over the first group's disconnect from reality. It's that the choices suck -- for both women and men. Like Pollitt and Young said, it's time to change the rules for everyone, not return to an old arrangement and call it revolutionary.