Political Animal


April 19, 2012 12:20 PM The “Choices” Mothers Make

By Ed Kilgore

At Ten Miles Square, the Progressive Policy Institute’s Anne Kim looks at the rekindled “Mommy Wars” over the choices women make in arranging their domestic and professional lives, and makes the important point that it’s often not a choice at all:

[B]y imbuing every mother’s circumstances with the gloss of “choice,” we end up ignoring the very real discussions we should be having about such issues as the lack of affordable quality child care, the continuing unwillingness of employers to provide flexibility at the workplace and the long-term economic impacts of taking a break from the workforce. These are the factors that make the “choice” between career and family so illusory for so many women.
In a remarkable survey of 3,781 mothers conducted in May 2010, the Working Mother Research Institute and Ernst and Young found that 55% of “career-oriented stay-at-home” moms would prefer to be working, while at the same time 71% of moms “equate work with something done only to pick up a paycheck.” In other words, many women who are in one arrangement would prefer to be in another.

Economic incentives and disincentives, Kim notes, often push and pull mothers in different directions, and punish their “choice” in either event. Stay-at-home moms forego badly needed income; those who work face prohibitive costs for quality child care, and if they return to work after an “interruption” to fulfill parenting responsibilities, they lose status and income. Low-income women who work also often lose public benefits, offsetting their limited wages.

Changing the terms of the debate to a real-life evaluation of what parents actually need to balance work and family—from the community and from employers—is the key step beyond today’s culturally-saturated arguments.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • N.Wells on April 19, 2012 12:37 PM:

    The French system is wonderfully family-friendly, with great nationalized pre- and post-natal medical care, family leaves, and state-run child care! From 1950/1955 to 2005/2010, the US cut infant mortality / 1000 live births from 30.5 to 6.8, while the French went from 44.2 to 3.5 - not that the Republicans will let us learn from that.

  • Ron Byers on April 19, 2012 1:00 PM:

    I wish staying at home was an option, but for most it isn't. In todays economy it takes the combined earnings of two crappy jobs just to pay the basic bills. This isn't our parents' America.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 19, 2012 1:22 PM:

    When you compare the US to every other country in developed (and semi-developed world), we have probably the most anti-family, mirthfully neglect system, at least with regards to protected paid parental leave.

    With as much (empty) blathering done by the Right about "family values", you'd think they'd be all about programs that reinforce parental obligation (parental leave--because babies are gifts from Jesus) and family stability. But then again the Right's understanding of family values is limited to putting a woman's hoo-hoo under padlock.

    It's really sad how aggressively backwards we are in the US on these matters. We don't just casually lag behind either. The GOP is trying to take a big-ass, Halloweeny-looking knife to what few programs do support the least well-off of families.

  • Texas Aggie on April 19, 2012 1:37 PM:

    This column is due to be the cover story for Duh! Magazine. That certain groups of people pretend not to realize the truth of the matter is a reflection on their lack of humanity.

  • Ron Byers on April 19, 2012 1:48 PM:

    When you look closely you have to conclude that the Republicans have not just declared war on women, they have declared war on families, at least middle class and working class families.

    I noticed something today when looking at a report on the richest counties in America. Ten of the top 15 are suburbs of Washington DC. Pretty damn telling isn't it.

  • schtick on April 19, 2012 2:10 PM:

    Ann Romney made a "choice" to stay home and tell her servants how to raise her children and tell her servants how to keep her mansion in order.
    Only the rich have that "choice" and only the rich would have the gall to brag about it.

  • Perspecticus on April 19, 2012 2:15 PM:

    So, shorter:

    "Working Mothers/Ernst&Young Study shows many believe grass is greener on other side"?

  • tcinaz on April 19, 2012 2:19 PM:

    Conservatives are dinosaurs who would if they could return us to any earlier age where white male dominance is the norm. They may mouth platitudes about equal or civil rights, but follow their rhetoric on "political correctness". They chafe at being unable to speak freely about where their actions and policies inevitably lead: suppression of all but the white male. That women have become an open target is unsurprising. Phyllis Schlafly has spent decades as an icon in the right's war on women. That their economic policies of the last thirty years have left women little or no better off has been their goal all along. It may be that only the last several months represent the first steps toward undoing all that conservatives have actually achieved. Maybe it is destiny that in order to win in the fall, Democrats must finally attack openly and unequivocally these attitudes and policies which should already be extinct.