The Mythical ‘Choice’ of the Stay-at-Home Mom

The fact that so much anger erupts at any perceived slight tells us many women are not truly choosing to be home with the kids

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Diane Sawyer, left, interviews Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, on April 16, 2012

The mood has shifted considerably on last week’s Ann Romney–Hilary Rosen fracas, with poll results showing that most women don’t really care about what Washington insiders have to say about Rosen’s word choice or, for that matter, how Romney chose to spend her time once she had children. Women are shrugging off political attempts to rekindle the tired old “mommy wars” debate, and are getting on with their busy and complicated lives.

I was shocked, nonetheless, by the degree of rage contained in some of the e-mails I received in response to my column last week. I was also deeply surprised this week when a readers’ panel I participated in on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show on the 1899 Kate Chopin novel, The Awakening, devolved, very quickly, back to Rosen-and-Romney talk once again.

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The proximate cause: disagreement over the character of Edna Pontellier, a wealthy young New Orleans woman stifling within her loveless marriage and unstimulating, toil-free life (I believe I can say “toil-free” without unduly again stirring the pot: Edna’s children and home are cared for by ample domestic help), who, after experiencing an emotional and sensual “awakening” through infatuation, escapes her husband and children by taking her own life.

Some readers around the country, and I, distanced ourselves from Edna’s “selfishness” in abandoning her children. Others felt we owed much greater compassion to a woman who had such a stark lack of choices. All of which somehow looped back to Rosen and Romney, and maternal stay-at-home loneliness and despair. Diane Rehm, the radio talk-show host, and Jane Holmes Dixon, suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, recalled the stifling isolation they’d felt as mothers 50 odd years earlier; they could strongly relate to Edna, as could a number of listeners.

It quickly became clear that the link between this more-than-a-century-old fictional character and these moms writing or calling in to express their solidarity with Edna was simple: misery. It was feelings, current or remembered, of depression, of the sense of a vital loss of self and of a deep maroonedness. Rehm and Dixon, who have known each other for many decades, remembered how important it had been to be able to get together way back then and talk their way through all these feelings. It is still a great unifier of stay-at-home mothers today.

This reality, I think, fuels much of the anger, the desire for recognition, the demand for respect we’ve heard so often of late from this minority of mothers — only 30% of whom, in the U.S., are home full-time with children under 18. Recent research has shown that this group is considerably less happy than working mothers, and less contented than part-time working mothers in particular. Working moms are healthier and less depressed, the American Psychological Association reported late last year. Why they feel this way isn’t hard to imagine. Stay-at-home mothers give up their financial freedom, and with it many feel their sense of agency slip away. Their position of equality with their husbands is by necessity somewhat eroded. They lose the sense of strength that comes from knowing that, come what may, they can keep themselves and their children afloat economically. They lose intellectual stimulation (assuming that they were lucky enough to have it in their jobs anyway), the easy companionship and structure of the workplace, and recognition from the outside world. And if they don’t have the money to outsource domestic jobs, their freedom from paid work comes at the cost of repetitive thankless tasks — laundry, cleaning and the like — that test their patience and can chip away at their self-worth. The pleasure in this life of course is time with the children, but school-age kids leave a void that many find hard to meaningfully fill.

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In the past, women lived constricted lives because society didn’t afford them much by way of choice. Today, our society in theory offers them a plethora of choices — so many, “that they’re overwhelmed by the stress of so many choices,” as Maureen Dowd said in her New York Times column this week — but in practice, far too many of these choices are false. A woman who ends up staying home with her kids because her work pays so badly that she can’t afford decent child care really has no choice. Ditto for a woman who has a special-needs child requiring constant medical visits and attention and whose husband earns more than she does, making her the natural, if not necessary, primary parent. The woman whose 55-hour-a-week job combines with her husband’s equally demanding career to produce a level of busyness that makes having a connected family life all but impossible unless one of them (the lower-paid one, of course) stays home isn’t really free in her choices either. How many women, after all — or men, for that matter — are in the enviable position of being able, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, to leave work at 5:30 p.m. in order to make it home for a nice dinner with their kids? If more could, we’d probably see women’s workforce participation sharply increase — economy permitting.

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If women were truly choosing to be home full-time, I think there would probably be a whole lot less emphasis on the hard work involved in doing so and a lot more talk about the privilege that choice would then clearly be. The fact that so much anger — masking so much unhappiness — erupts at any perceived slight to stay-at-home mothers’ efforts should tell us that the condition of full-time motherhood is one we should talk about a great deal more — not through Hallmark-worthy platitudes, but with concern and an eye toward change.

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