Choice, Luxury, and Survival

Hilary Rosen’s legitimate questioning of Ann Romney’s ability to comment on the dilemmas of women and mothers in the paid workforce has been cynically reframed into an alleged attack on stay at home moms.  And in this edition of the political “mommy wars,” as in all previous chapters, the economic reality governing most mother’s lives is ignored/rendered invisible. All over the country usually smart and savvy women are now scrambling to defend Ann Romney’s “choice” to be a stay at home mom.

Even my beloved Michelle Obama has gotten in on the action. I wish they would all cut it out and speak the truth. To argue that moms in 2012 America have a choice as to whether to work for pay is simply a silly but dangerous joke. The defenses offered for Ann Romney’s lifestyle only serve to perpetuate the myth that moms in the U.S. actually have such a choice about providing for their children’s material needs (AKA working). Let’s call Ann’s lifestyle what it truly is: A Luxury. Hilary Rosen shouldn’t apologize for speaking the truth, even if it offends some people. The reality is that not having to earn money because another adult is willing to cover your expenses is a LUXURY, not a choice. Most mothers who work for pay do all the work that Ann Romney did to raise her family, and yet have to meet the demands of a paying job on top of that work. The decision to work for pay when you do not have another adult who is willing to or capable of covering your expenses is not a choice either; it is SURVIVAL.

In a few hours, the woman who empties my office trash and recycling bins will come by as she does every work day. She’ll do this while her own children are literally thousands of miles away, on another continent. Every penny she can scrape together is sent to her children back home. In many ways, she makes the ultimate sacrifice that any mother could for her children: She forgoes the cuddles, prayers, and laughter of her very own flesh and blood so that they can have the material things necessary to survive and hopefully thrive. She’s a mom in America–does she really have a choice to work or not? On the other end of the spectrum is where I sit, a professional mom with an exciting and fulfilling job, earning a nice income. But, having come from a working class family, I still carry student loan debt with a monthly bill close to $1,000. How many women have a husband who can support her and their children by himself, and then pay her student loan debts on top of that? Is my working for pay a choice?

Who really does have a choice? What about debt-free women with high-income earning spouses? Is it really a choice for them to not work, even temporarily while their kids are still too young for school? After seeing how many husbands don’t end up sticking around, would you advise them to give up their jobs and any seniority they’ve earned, and bet their children’s well being on their husbands sticking around for the long haul?

A little history lesson/statement of what should be the obvious: Around the world, and even here in the U.S., most moms have always worked for pay. And this is especially true for moms of color. My own grandmother, Julia Ortega, worked in the canneries and farm fields of Northern California to earn money for the family. And she did so while raising 10 children! At other times, she literally “took in washing” from other families to make money. I’ve never understood how she and the older kids managed that when they already have 12 people’s washing to do. And, of course, African American women’s labor was literally stolen from them under the guise that not only their labor but their very bodies were owned by their masters. Labor history is replete with stories of European women working under horrific conditions in U.S. textile factories, oftentimes to pay off the debts they incurred to make the passage to the U.S. Only a tiny sector of women and moms ever had the luxury of not working for pay throughout U.S. history. And you can bet your bottom dollar that those American women in the canneries of California, the fields of the Midwest, the tobacco farms of the South, and the sweatshops of New York and Boston would have seen the opportunity to spend the day caring for their own children as a luxury. They and their modern day counterparts had no choice to make about whether to work for pay, a la Ann Romney.

And it’s time to stop the kvetching about how hard it is to be a mom and that therefore moms who don’t work for pay are excused from paid work. The disingenuous outrage about Ms. Rosen’s supposed de-valuing of the work done by stay at home moms actually devalues the double-shift work done by moms who work for pay on top of raising their families. We still do everything the non-pay-earning moms do, just in 40 fewer hours a week. For those of us in the upper income echelons, perhaps our living rooms aren’t as tidy, and our closets are a jumbled mess, but we still feed our children breakfast, outfit them in clean clothing, help with their homework, organize the play dates, plan the family vacations, find the missing shoes, change the sheets after a midnight “accident,” write the letters to grandma, put something on the table for dinner, and make sure that the bathtub doesn’t have mold growing in it. In other words, it’s pure poppycock for Ann Romney or Michelle Obama to assert that ALL moms work hard and then leave it at that, as if that’s the end of the story. Of course all moms work hard, it’s just that some of us work hard at two jobs, not just one.

I say all this as somebody who was raised by a stay at home mom who is about to celebrate 50 years of marriage to my father. My mom would be the first one to say how incredibly lucky she is that my dad provided the money to support her and their four kids while we were young, and then for decades after that. After all, what was the alternative for a Mexican American woman with an 8th grade education? Before marrying my father at the ripe age of 21, she worked at the Patio Foods factory in San Antonio, Texas, on an assembly line. She stood for 8 hours a day slopping spoonfuls of beans & rice onto the TV dinner trays they produced. She also claims that the plant manager used to be the warden of a prison. At least that’s how she and the workers explained how mean the boss was to them. Was it a choice for her to stay home with us four kids? Spend the day with her children using her own discretion about how to organize her time, or spend 8 hours on her feet on the assembly line under the watchful eye of the former prison warden? That’s a choice?

And what about the dads? Why are men supposed to figure out how to simultaneously work and parent their children but women are only expected to do just one of these jobs at a time? As someone who is very fortunate to have a husband who truly shares in the parenting and home care duties, it seems really insensitive to assert that a male parent should have to do all the juggling required of parents in our crazy society that stubbornly clings to outdated conventions (like three months of no school when parents have to magically patch together safe and affordable care for their school-aged children during the workday, or random days off from school that don’t coincide with work vacations) but female parents shouldn’t. When we start providing subsidies to all parents, male or female, so that they don’t have to work but their families’ financial needs will be taken care of, then perhaps we can say that Ann Romney had a “choice” to stay home with her kids. Until then, let’s just call it what it is: a Luxury.

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