The Economic Role of Mothers

A Dec 2011 APA study is making its way through the news suggesting that mothers who work part-time are happier and healthier than stay-at-homes and full-time mothers, and they make good parents. A good summary of the study can be found here. Regarding the “mommy wars” or the debate in white feminist circles between working mothers and stay-at-homes, a simple middle ground seems to be part-time work. (The reason I say “white” is because in many communities of color, not working full-time is not an option for economic reasons.)

One of the researchers of the study, Cheryl Buehler, notes that:

  • A mother’s economic role is central to family life, and it supports her well-being and her parenting,
  • Work offers mothers real important opportunities and resources to minimize social isolation and enrich their social development and well-being,
  • It gives mothers tools, ideas, and strategies when raising a child.

I think we’re seeing how, in this economic recession and growing atmosphere of inequality, a “mother’s economic role” often means “the fact that a mother needs to work so that ends can be met.”

A policy hope is that from research like the APA’s, companies will start to offer more part time and flexible work arrangements, and also think about benefit packages for part-timers, since more part-time work benefits the economy, families and individuals.

I’m not going to mince words: Mormonism’s “Proclamation on the Family” is classist. It begins with an idealistic premise that certain “roles” are meant for certain genders, when it’s obvious for many families that a certain amount of income is required to meet those roles.

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6 Responses

  1. I don’t understand the “mommy wars”. Why not admit that what works for some people or families doesn’t always work for other people or families?

  2. chanson says:

    I think were seeing how, in this economic recession and growing atmosphere of inequality, a mothers economic role often means the fact that a mother needs to work so that ends can be met.

    The church teaches girls only to prepare for careers in the case of economic necessity, but the study you cite demonstrates that that’s not only good reason. A lot of adults are happier supporting themselves economically rather than being economically dependent on someone else.

    Teaching that a woman’s career should only be the emergency back-up plan teaches women with successful careers to judge themselves as failures (for not landing a husband who can afford to keep them home as SaHMs) — and/or as unrighteous for choosing to work outside the home (even in cases where the mom herself, and consequently her children, are happier when she’ working).

    Yes it’s classist to say that families where the man provides enough money to keep his wife home are the only families that are really doing it right. Also, for so many reasons, kids and adults shouldn’t be taught that their gender determines their one true role. Paul Sunstone nailed it — we should encourage people to make the decisions that are healthiest for their own families, and acknowledge that the choices that are best for one family aren’t the same ones that are best for another.

  3. Alan says:

    Teaching that a womans career should only be the emergency back-up plan teaches women with successful careers to judge themselves as failures

    Are there really a lot of Mormon women in successful careers judging themselves as failures and unrighteous? I would think that if a Mormon woman didn’t internalize the cultural cues and developed a career for herself, then she probably would have worked through the bogus idea that her only “ideal” option is to become a SaHM.

    From what I’ve seen, it’s the SaHMs judging successful career women as failures and unrighteous — and the career women/moms defending themselves and judging the SaHMs as complacent… hence the “mommy wars.”

    I was thinking more about how, according to church standards, many families are considered in a state of “emergency” or “exception” because there’s no choice but to work — not so much in successful careers, per se, but rather “the job I have to do to put food on the table.”

    Working to put food on the table is not an emergency or an exception. It’s a fact of life. How can the Proclamation not begin with the facts of life, and instead assert something that is unreasonable, except for those who can afford it? It’s so classist that it’s ridiculous.

    I think I read somewhere that less than 10% of American families fit the dad-works, mom-stays-at-home model. And that’s not because “feminism” has taken over, as the Christian right and the LDS Church would like everyone to believe. It’s because of the 99%/1% dynamic of financial inequality (not to say the dad-works, mom-stays-at-home is the ideal end goal anyway). Middle and upper class people really don’t understand what it means to be working class. The Church is a church for middle class people. It’s “American” that way.

  4. Alan says:

    Hmm…now that I think about it, the religious right has successfully convinced even the secular public that one parent at home is the “best” option when a kid is in the picture.

    Hence, a woman who spent her 20s building her career and decides to get married and have a child in her 30s could very well feel guilt if she didn’t quit her job (or if her husband doesn’t become a stay-at-home-parent). But in the Mormon context, a woman who opts for a career in her 20s, instead of becoming a mother, is already breaking the mold.

  5. aerin says:

    This isn’t related to the proclamation per se, but a lot of schools here in the US depend on parent involvement. The structure is built on a parent being home (not working a full time job). This is for winter and spring breaks, the PTA, even the school hours (most schools have before and after school programs for this reason…parents can’t pick their kids up at 3, or from the bus at 4.

    And what about all the extra? Being hone for the landlord or person to fix the heater? I don’t know how single parents do it, particularly those who work at an hourly wage. I suspect a lot of things don’t get done…parents are just trying to get by.

    With that said, I think it’s wrong to imply that a person must be a parent for happiness. I was uncomfortable with a recent article about fertility, evidently many young women/men underestimate the probability of being able to conceive in their late thirties and forties.

    Sometimes I think American culture has drifted from the classist model…but it still has some undertones stressing parenthood, certain types of parenthood (one parent staying home), etc. When we give people the freedom to figure out what works best for them, understanding society and economics…it just works better.

  6. Alan says:

    I dont know how single parents do it, particularly those who work at an hourly wage.

    The borders of the family include extended family (often grandparents in the home), friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, public policy takes the “nuclear family” to be the norm or ideal — for example, the single mother receives welfare because of the “lack of a man,” as opposed to the grandparent/friend/neighbor receiving a stipend for his or her contribution. Also, there’s the overwhelming construction of “motherhood” as meaning you spend an X amount of time with your children, and if you don’t meet this quota, you’re a bad mom. Plenty of working class mothers would like to spend more time with their kids; they don’t need the added guilt-trip that floats in middle-class society.

    Sometimes I think American culture has drifted from the classist model

    Yes, I think perhaps institutions like the Church are opening up to the fact that the economic dynamics are not what they were in the mid-1990s when the Proclamation was drawn up. The Proclamation, in my view, was in response to middle-class feminism in the 70s and 80s, gay rights in the 90s, etc. It totally was not in response to working class family structures — except to the extent that it was addressing single motherhood and the “lack of a man” such that the “state” had to be a breadwinner (classically Republican, the Church wants each family to take a self-sustaining model, and remove the state from the picture). Since more and more families (the majority, in fact) don’t fit the mold in this economy, though, I would hope the Church is beginning to recognize how the theology itself is broken — that is, its constructions of gender don’t make sense without a given dollar amount per household.

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