This week, a "viral video ad" (barf barf barf) from a greeting card company aimed at the vital Mother's Day market started making the rounds on the internet and results have been...mixed, to say the least. But the really great thing is that it's revived the age old debate of who's worse: self-righteous stay at home moms, sanctimonious working moms or smug "childfree" feminists. Entire Facebook feeds have devolved into infighting and snide remarks, friendships are threatened and the internet has proven yet again that we're all incapable of having a drama-free Wednesday. But the question remains: in #MommyWars, who's worse?
My answer: all three are nutso and by focusing on this stupid argument instead of real problems it's making everything suck even more for everybody else. Allow me to explain.
Men Yup, starting here. Let's get it out of the way. This is one of the ways that patriarchal gender roles hurt men, too. It's been pointed out that the impression that only women are capable of being the partner primarily responsible for child rearing makes it even harder for men to actually help, you know...rear their children. Deadspin's own Drew Margery has some great thoughts on being new dad, but my favorite part is this:
When a child is born, the father instantly becomes the unwelcome intern begging for meaningful duties. Giving that intern shit to do is more work than not having him around at all, and the average new father feels that in his bones. Sometimes you even grow to resent it. HEY! I HAVE A COLLEGE DEGREE! I'M NOT A FUCKING IDIOT!
And this doesn't say anything about the guys who want to stay home with their kids and can't. Or the guys who can, and get questioned constantly about their choice. Men are accused of kidnapping their own children just for running errands with them, and I've heard hilarious stories from SAHDs about getting suspicious looks from nannies when they take their kids to the park. I wonder how many men are questioned for their 'choice' to return to work? (A tangent: if you want hilarious insight into the life of a SAHD, check out Chris Illuminati's Message with a Bottle blog.)
Women of Color Asian and Latina mothers are even more likely than white women to be stay at home mothers, but the reason isn't a simple one. Rates of SAHM in women of color correlate also with immigration: women who stay at home to care for their children are more likely to have not been born in the United States. There's also a strong correlation with lack of education, painting a picture of women who are in the home not necessarily because it is the best choice for the family, but because they have no other option. Some combination of a language barrier and less than a high school diploma can leave them dependent on income from their spouses or children. These women are not choosing to stay at home or choosing to have a job (or two, or three). They are put in the untenable position and making it work because there is no other choice.
Women of Color, but especially Black Women As our own NinjaCate pointed out, it wasn't all that long ago that many black women weren't allowed to prioritize their own motherhood because they were too busy taking care of other (read: white) people's children. More than that, when you check out the demographics for stay at home mothers, black women are far less likely to stay at home than their Asian and Latina counterparts...and those who do stay at home are more likely to be single mothers. Let that sink in for a moment. We're not talking about a family operating on a single income, or a couple of part time incomes. We're talking about a woman and her children who might very well be in dire straits financially because there is probably no source of regular income. This, of course, goes back to the earlier point about lack of educational opportunities; arguing about choosing to be a SAHM allows us to ignore the disturbing cycle of income vanishing as African Americans lose education, lose jobs, and lose wealth. The few black women who do stay at home with their children by and large aren't doing it because they can, but because they have to. And we haven't even begun to confront the wage gap and fewer employment opportunities that African American women face.
Childfree Feminists Who Don't Want to Be There seems to be this implication that young feminists who don't have kids hate on stay at home moms. Part of the reason that this particular reasoning cranks my gearshaft so much in the not fun way is that I know a lot of young childfree feminists that are struggling mightily to conceive. I know even more childfree feminists that want to have children soon but cannot financially or safely consider that option. The idea that anyone of a certain age without children is automatically in the "hate the SAHM" camp is a hurtful one in those cases especially.
Children I could write a whole post just about this topic but I don't want to completely bore you all, so I'll try to keep it short. By focusing on the fight over if it's more feminist to stay at home or work or not have kids at all, we're ignoring the very people that are supposed to be at the center of the whole debate. As the economy has tanked, spending on early intervention programs like Headstart took big cuts, leaving hundreds of thousands of children without access to vital programs. The benefits of early education are too numerous to count here, but at the very least we can call out the long term health benefits and increased earning potential. And the fewer early intervention programs that are offered, the fewer families have the resources to put their children in the care of another person while both parents work, the more parents have to choose who stays home. Having access to federally and state funded early education programs would allow many more women to make an actual choice about if they want to go back to work (or school) or not.
Anna Jarvis That's right, the founder of Mother's Day, who sounds like a freaking BAMF in her own right. After the death of her own mother in 1908, Jarvis managed to get Mother's Day recognized as an official holiday in just six short years, wanting to celebrate Ann Reeves Jarvis's contributions (which she totally deserved):
Anna's mother Ann Reeves Jarvis had founded Mothers' Day Work Clubs in five cities to improve sanitary and health conditions. The Mothers' Day Work Clubs also treated wounds, fed, and clothed both Union and Confederate soldiers with neutrality.
In the 1920s, as the holiday grew commercialized, Jarvis and her sister Ellsinore used their inheritance to fight the very holiday she'd worked so hard to get recognized. Anna Jarvis does not sound like the kind of lady who would like seeing women fighting each other instead of getting stuff done, does she?
By framing the conversation about motherhood in "choice," we aren't talking about any of the very real problems faced by parents and children across this country. We aren't talking about the number of children in foster care (nearly 400,000) or growing up in poverty (22% of American children). We aren't talking about lack of education and employment opportunities for women in general and women of color in particular. We aren't talking about the fact that the United States has the worst parental leave policies in the industrialized world; wouldn't it be nice if women could chose to go back to work after several months (or years, what's up Estonia!), instead of just a few scant weeks if they're lucky enough to get even that? We aren't talking about the wage gap and how it impacts the choices that couples have to make about who stays home (if anyone). There is no way to quantify the work that mothers do, stay at home or working. They are not CEOs. They are not employees. They are so much more than that, and they deserve a real conversation about how to make motherhood a choice, stay at home motherhood a choice, and working motherhood a choice, instead of what it too often is: a necessity born of a number of variables, and not real choice at all.
In an attempt to fight the greeting card industrial complex, I'm going to leave you with a quote from Anna Jarvis herself:
A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.
Now call your mother. (Or don't.)