06 November 2007

feminism is still necessary

Yesterday a friend I haven't seen in several months came over to visit. She has a son who James is good friends with, so the boys played, giving us a chance to catch up. It didn't take long for her to tell me that she and her husband are getting a divorce.

Mostly she's fine with the way things are working out, but she confessed that she's worried about going back to work. She was a nurse before her son was born, but she's been a stay-at-home mom for almost six years now. She's worried about how much the field has changed in six years; she's worried about whether anyone will want to hire someone with a six-year gap in her resume. In short, she's fine with the fact that her relationship is ending, but she's worried about the money.

She's gone from living in a spacious 4-bedroom house in one of the wealthiest suburbs around to living in a loft apartment in a terrible neighborhood downtown. Her husband is wealthy, with the potential to earn even more money in the years to come. Together over the last 7 or so years they've enjoyed a high quality of life. Now that they're getting divorced, her husband will be able to continue his way of life virtually unchanged. My friend, however, for all her years invested in raising their son and running their home, cooking their meals and managing their everyday life, is suddenly reduced to a fraction of her former quality of life.

This is not uncommon.

On my sister's recommendation, a couple of years ago I read Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood. Every mother should read this book. Every parent should read this book. To be brief, it examines the value that American society really places on mothers* -- the economic value, that is. Cultural wisdom tells us that being a mother is one of the most important things a woman can do, if not the most important. The cultural ideal is that every moths should stay home with her children and devote herself to raising them.

The practical reality, though, is that women who choose to stay home with their children are making a huge economic sacrifice. They are losing income, obviously, by not working, but they are also losing future income, should they return to work someday, by putting a sizeable gap in their resumes. They are also forfeiting benefits such as health care, social security and retirement savings -- some are lucky enough that their husbands' benefits will include them, but certainly not everyone has that option, at least not at an affordable price.

It's no wonder, then, that divorce is a worse experience for women, financially, than for men. Women usually retain custody of the children, but even with child support, they usually face a significant drop in income on which to raise those children. Sadly, my friend is finding this out the hard way. She did not hesitate to remind me that I'd face the same situation should Greg and I split up, something I've definitely thought about.

So what's the solution? Well, I think cultural recognition that parenthood is real, valuable work would be a start. Universal health care would help. It'd be nice if more businesses would offer flexible schedules and benefits for part-time workers. Maybe government inclusion of unpaid caregivers' jobs in social security. Crittenden's book -- seriously, I can't recommend it enough -- addresses all of this, with real-life examples of how other western nations deal with the same issues. There aren't any easy solutions, especially since people's circumstances vary so much. But I think more women, especially those who stay home to raise children, ought to be aware of the real consequences of that decision.

*Of course this would apply to stay-at-home fathers as well, but mothers make up the vast majority of stay-at-home parents, so I'm generalizing.

1 comment:

Austin Eisele said...

I've been thinking a lot about this since this summer. I think there is a larger picture too, which is that real "work" is considered a "public" act, while parenting a "private" act. Thus there is an inherent animosity between the work world and the home world, and this is even seen by the work-world's attitude toward fathers (although, as you point out, not NEARLY to the same degree as mothers).

One way to justify my position is to point out the "skills" of a stay-at-home mother develops: general administration (e.g., of budgets, multiple schedules, etc.), networking in a variety of settings, leadership (why isn't this one obvious!), etc. While this may not include "content" specific skills (like knowing about computer markets, etc.), those things are simply to learn, because they're just info.

Anyway, I suppose my point is that because of our weird separation of everything into "public/private" we automatically assume whoever is in the "private" sphere (historically, and continually, women), has nothing to do with the public sphere.