Why is it OK to ridicule stay-at-home mothers?

By Marta H. Mossburg

For The Baltimore Sun

Published: Sunday, April 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

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We live in fascinating times. On the one hand, it is OK to detail the most intimate aspects of a woman's reproductive health in congressional testimony and to demand "free" birth-control pills from employers and/or the government. It is also OK to label those who object to such public displays of personal choice and state-sponsored free love as leading a "war on women."

On the other hand, it is also OK for those who hew to the same ideology as that above to condemn a woman who chooses to raise her children for a living as someone who "never worked a day in her life."

Is this what the fight for equality has morphed into — the right to eliminate the repercussions of biology on someone else's dime and mock those who choose (what once was not a choice) to raise children?

It is as if being a fully realized woman in today's society hinges on the ability to have sex without consequences and children with outsourced child care — and as if our wombs are a mere accident of evolution, with no valid claims on our identity or life choices.

This lie is easy enough to believe prior to children and when you are not pregnant and the possibility of being so is just theory. Perhaps that is why it was so easy for Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke to go before Congress and discuss her and her friends' reproductive lives as if she were arguing the merits of arugula over tater tots in school lunches.

But as a mother who just gave birth to her third child, biology's pull on my personhood is tangible and dictates most parts of my life. For starters, I am exhausted all of the time. I'd love to take naps, but our boys and dogs need exercise and have no concept of personal space or deadlines, and our baby girl needs constant care. And then there is the reaction I elicited from those outside my family up until the Sunday before last: I was not a person, but a pregnant woman. Doors were opened, chairs pulled out, glasses of water brought without asking wherever I went. I appreciated those gestures and accepted them as a privilege in that stage of my life. I also very much appreciate the love and care our nanny gives to our children, and I could not work without her. But it will be a long time before my children are not omnipresent in my thoughts and in my handbag in the form of diapers, snacks, pacifiers and toy cars.

The odd thing is that even for those of us who believe that biology dictates destiny in no small part, and that raising children full-time is a valid life choice, it is still awkward to ask a new acquaintance if she "works outside the home." I would never ask a man that question. And why it should be embarrassing to ask a woman is still a partial mystery to me. I've asked a broad spectrum of friends with different political views how they feel about that issue to gauge whether I was alone in thinking that, and they all said they felt the same way — and didn't know why.

I think it is in part the result of a long acculturation process for those of us who grew up in middle-class homes where college was a given and success defined by the amount of money earned — most often by the father. Whereas men rarely have to make the choice between parenting and working, women do all the time, creating a state of constant cognitive dissonance where one's true desires (either to stay at home or to work full time outside the home) are in conflict with societal or familial expectations and the vision you had for your life as a younger woman.

Legislating free birth control doesn't eliminate this conflict. Neither does making fun of women who raise children full time, as Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen did of Ann Romney recently with her "never worked a day in her life" quip on CNN.

What they do is to try to artificially create clarity where none exists. That is a regular, exceedingly common response to uncertainty — as Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in "Thinking, Fast and Slow" — but can lead to bad decisions.

That such tyrannical pronouncements about the proper role for women so often come from women is one of the ironies of our times.

Marta H. Mossburg is a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Readers may send her email at marta@martamossburg.com. She wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.

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