Having It All—One Step at a Time
At the start of family life when children need full-time care, the male model tends to narrow the perception of choices about the role of motherhood: either stay at home and invest in childrearing activities or compete with men on equal footing by entering the labor force early and staying for the long haul. From this perspective, the only way women can have both children and a career is by relying on day care and other family – friendly policies, and encouraging men to assume a larger share of cooking, cleaning, and caring. Having children, of course, does not automatically limit the opportunities of motherhood to two mutually exclusive options: remaining in the traditional role—barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, as it is sometimes disparagingly depicted—or joining the fast track of professional life while outsourcing childrearing and domestic responsibilities. By taking a long view of motherhood over an expected lifetime of about eighty years (twenty years more than the life expectancy of mothers just a couple of generations earlier), we allow for the possibility that a “balance” between motherhood and employment might be achieved by sequential as well as simultaneous patterns of paid and domestic work. From this perspective, women who want to combine a life of motherhood and employment could have it all—one step at a time.
Mothers choosing to follow a sequential pattern, for example, might invest all their energies in child care and domestic activities for five to ten years and then spend the remainder of their active years in paid employment. The contributions of mothers to their families and to society vary according to different stages of the family life cycle. There are good reasons why some women would prefer to stay home during their children’s preschool years. The early years of childhood are critical for social and cognitive development; some mothers want to invest more heavily in shaping this development than in advancing their employment prospects. Home care during the early childhood years is labor intensive, which heightens the economic value of the homemaker’s contribution during that period. Then, after five or even ten years at home, women would still have more than thirty years to invest in paid employment— enough time for most people to fully experience (perhaps even extinguish) the alleged joys of labor-force participation.
Clearly, the sequential pattern of mothers balancing work and family life is not to everyone’s advantage. The cost would probably be too high for dual-earner families in which women are the primary earners. In other cases, investing five to ten years in child care and household management would derail careers from the fast track; for example, it would limit participation in occupations that require early training, many years of preparation, or the athletic prowess of youth. And a later start lessens the likelihood of rising to the very top of the corporate ladder. Those are the trade-offs for enjoying the choice of two callings in life.
As the world of work beckons to women, the domestic role of motherhood, especially in caring for young children, has become contested ground. Some women want to keep the responsibilities of childrearing entirely as their own, and others want to distribute a greater share of responsibility to men and public day-care authorities. The response to the tensions surrounding motherhood varies among different cultures. Affirming the domestic role of motherhood, Article 41 of the Irish Constitution recognizes “that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”17 (The Irish Constitution also explicitly protects the rights of men and women who work outside the home.) During a parliamentary committee review of the Irish Constitution, charges that Article 41, particularly the gender emphasis, was flawed and outdated were met with a lyrical defense by the Mothers at Home organization:
Childcare’s what they call it now, big business I hearsay.
It’s what our mammies did for years without a thought of pay.
But what about the mammies who want to stay at home?
Must they be now forced out to work and leave their care alone!
It’s right for those who want to go. They’re quite entitled to.
But what of those who want to stay? What are they supposed to do?
We’re only small for just a time. Our childhood will pass by
Without our mums to care for us. It’s enough to make us cry!
A Nation’s wealth is measured by more than stocks and shares.
It’s by how we treat each other—how we have loved and cared.
The mothers of this Nation are doing a mighty deed,
Now the children of the country are very much in need… .18
The Irish appreciation of motherhood has not kept women from working outside the home. In 2004 the labor-force participation of Irish women, though not as high as in the Nordic countries, was less than 1 percent below the average for the fifteen original European Union countries. Between 1991 and 2004 female employment rates in Ireland registered the highest growth among the thirty member nations of the OECD.19 The Irish Constitution’s recognition of motherhood, along with a limited tax credit of approximately 770 Euros (about $1,000) available to mothers and fathers for home care of dependents, affords greater public respect and value to the role in Ireland than we find in the United States.
Although most mothers have some choice in determining how to balance work and family, the cultural context in the United States, along with much of the advanced industrial world, favors the male model of early entry and continuous labor-force participation rather than the sequential approach. In addition, as we have seen, the capitalist ethos underrates the economic value and social utility of domestic labor in family life, particularly during the early years of childhood; the prevailing expectations of gender feminists place too high a value on the social and psychological satisfactions of work; and the typical package of family-friendly benefits delivered by the state creates incentives that essentially reinforce the devaluations of motherhood prompted by the capitalist ethos and feminist expectations.
Is there a way to reshape these influential forces to correct the social imbalance currently encountered by mothers trying to decide how to reconcile work and family life? It is hard to see how the capitalist ethos can be moderated, short of an almost spiritual conversion in public attitudes that rebuffs material consumption and the commodification of everyday life. I detect no such change on the horizon. Yet, just as the capitalist knack for creative destruction has contributed to the outsourcing of family household production, it is possible that the innovative genius of the free market might create in-home work for millions of people. If my phone request for computer service can be patched out to a worker somewhere in India, why not directly into the residences of stay-at-home workers in the United States? The information-technology revolution may yet spawn a renewal of family life and home parenting as people increasingly shop from home and commute electronically to work.20
Feminist expectations are another matter. There are some signs that the emerging generation of leaders among college – educated women are beginning to question how well the male model suits their ambitions in life. They may no longer be satisfied with the trade-offs inherent in earlier expectations. A 2006 Newsweek article on the next generation of women leaders claims that lately the talk among work-family advocates has changed. Rather than trying to persuade women to stay on track toward leadership positions, according to Daniel McGinn, the new discourse is “focused on finding ways to support women’s ‘non-linear’ career paths—and to build better ‘on ramps’ for women wishing to return to work after career pauses.”21 He notes an increasing number of high-profile role models who are taking time off from their careers, including the actress Calista Flockhart, who is returning to television after spending five years at home with her child. Further indications of change are registered in national surveys, which reveal an increasing lack of enthusiasm for full-time work outside the home. From 1997 to 2007 the percentage of both employed and at-home mothers who considered full-time work to be their ideal situation declined by one-third.22 The extent to which feminist expectations may shift is ultimately an issue that women will decide for themselves.
Finally, there is the role of the state and the question of how to deliver family-friendly policies that provide an equitable set of work-family incentives, benefiting both those who value an early start on paid employment and those who prefer to invest more time in childrearing and domestic life.