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DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE

The so-called "Mommy Wars" get lots of press: supposedly American mothers are at one another's throats over whether they stay at home with their children or put them in some kind of childcare so that they can work outside the home.  Personally, I suspect this to be largely a media invention.  I've worked full-time outside the home, stayed-at- home full-time, and worked part time, and -- while I've occasionally encountered judgmental attitudes from women who were currently making different choices than mine -- I've mostly found other mothers to be sympathetic to the tension between providing for your family and spending time with your children, and to be accepting of a variety of solutions to the dilemma. The media attention, though, highlights the fact that, as a society, we put the burden of childcare decisions on mothers.  The only time fathers get mentioned in these discussions is when they're absent -- women who "have to work" because they're widowed or their ex-husbands refuse to pay child support generally get a pass from the societal scrutiny on their finances and mothering (it's interesting that there's not really a maternal equivalent to "deadbeat dad").  Media depictions of men interacting with their children tend to focus on the ideas that men are clueless and inept in the domestic sphere and that fathers are dependent upon their wives' superior parenting and housekeeping skills.  In pop culture, men's role in parenthood seems to be limited to "fathering" their children (i.e. providing the sperm donation) and paying the bills.  There's very little sense of fathers as involved and active parents, and there's no Daddy equivalent to the Mommy Wars.

Mainstream parenting magazines (which are universally targeted at mothers) regularly run articles with titles like "Can You Afford to Stay Home?"  These articles are predicated on the assumption that what all women want more than anything is to be able to stay at home with their children and that only those poor souls who "have to work" would choose to be away from their children for any portion of their day.   These articles invite women to plug their annual salaries into a formula and then subtract their daycare costs, clothing expenses (because if you stay home, you won't need clothes), lunches out, Starbucks on the way to the office, take out dinners (because if you stay at home with an infant or a toddler, you'll feel like cooking six course meals every night), etc.  In very many cases, the result will be a negative number.  There you are; "it costs you money to work!" 

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What about Dad's share of the childcare costs?  Why is all of that coming out of Mom's salary?  Granted, in some cases, it is significantly cheaper for one parent to stay home, and in many other cases, the parents have decided that they would prefer to have a parent at home with the children.  But the automatic assumption that if a woman works outside the home, she's solely accountable for the day care costs perpetuates the notion that mothers alone are responsible for childcare, whether they do it themselves or contract it out.  And those handy calculators are curiously silent about the opportunity costs of staying home: money you don't pay into retirement or social security and years in which you don't advance in your career and your skills grow rusty.  

Not that men get off scot-free.  I've never heard of an employed-outside-the-home father being berated for not raising his kids himself, but the flipside of the expectation that mothers will be in charge of childcare is that fathers are expected to be breadwinners, and their parenting is viewed as expendable.  Men are held accountable for their families' financial security, and in many cases, the father is working insane hours or multiple jobs so that the family can afford for mom to be at home with the kids.  This division of labor is problematic not only because the family's financial eggs are all in one basket but also because the kids don't get quality time with their dad.

This isn't meant to be a diatribe against the many families who've made this choice; after all, it's exactly the one my family made.  I worked full-time until Franny was born, and then, faced with daycare expenses for two kids that would have equaled half our take-home pay, Adam and I decided that one of us should stay home.  We had reasons why it made sense for me to be the one to quit my full-time job; given the same set of options, I think we'd make the same decision again.  But I wish that we'd had more choices, and I'm acutely aware of how much its cost us, especially now that I'm trying to re-enter the full-time job market.

Given the choice between paying through the nose for (often mediocre) day care or having one parent stay home, it's not surprising that those who can afford to choose to have a parent stay home.  Given the biological realities of birth and breastfeeding, it's not surprising that more mothers than fathers stay at home with their young children, especially when you factor in societal expectations based on gender.  And small decisions get compounded, so that once a family has decided to allocate most of the breadwinning to one parent and most of the childcare to the other, it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse that decision.   But I worry about what sorts of messages we're sending our children about gender, and the ways that our decisions about childcare reinforce gender stereotypes.  Last year, Franny's pre-kindergarten class drew pictures of what they wanted to be when they grew up.  All of the girls said they wanted to be mommies, although many of them also said they wanted to be veterinarians, paleontologists, or doctors.  Only one boy (who also said he wanted to be a firefighter) said he wanted to be a daddy.  And maybe more than anything, this is why I want to go back to work full-time, because I want Adam to be as involved in our children's lives as I am, and I want to give our kids as many options as possible when they become parents.  The only way they'll know that moms and dads should parent equally is if we model that for them.
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About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.

 

 

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