Wow, talk about a conversational flashback. Thanks to Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen saying how Ann Romney -- stay-at-home Mom to five boys -- "actually never worked a day in her life," that old can of worms about SAHMs has again been reopened. It's an argument that raged back in the 1970s when mothers of young children first showed up en masse in the workplace and it seems to rear its head in a new mutation every few years. Remember how the opinion floodgates reopened in 1992 when then-wannabe First Lady Hillary Clinton told Dan Rather on "60 Minutes" that she wasn't someone who would stay home and bake cookies?
Me? I've always been a leave-the-home-for-work mom. For the most part, it's been because I love what I do -- which is both raise my children and get paid for writing. My salary is also an important part of our family budget. And yes, more than once, I've been told that I should modify my lifestyle and stay home with my kids. What I never understood is why anyone cares what choices I've made or thinks they get a say in my making them.
But when it comes to the SAHM debate, it never fails to hit a nerve with me. Perpetual guilt is probably the bane of the work-out-of-the-home moms' existence. If I'm in the office, I'm guilty over missing my son's oral book report; if I'm at a Little League game, I'm checking emails from the office. If you asked me, I would have to say that those moms who don't have to do the workplace-parenting balancing act have an easier time of it. But the point is, nobody asked me. We all make our own choices and I don't stand in judgment of those whose choices differ from mine.
My only request is that for once we have an honest discussion about the issue Hilary Rosen just raised. (And frankly, it was a little disingenuous of her to later say she was misunderstood and just trying to underscore how wealthy folks like the Romneys are out of touch with issues facing the economic battle-scarred.)
This time, let's not fall for the red-herring trap and waste time debating who works harder: SAHMs or moms who go to offices or factories every day. The real discussion should be what this all says about the role of women and why we are still even talking about how to limit it. The division of labor between men and women is something that's been around since the cavemen. (The cavemen, by the way, appear to have very neatly worked things out so that the women raised the offspring while the men went out hunting and gathering, but I'd like to allow for some evolution here.)
When I was born in the 1950s, women -- with the rare exception -- did not work outside the home once they started families. Those who went to college did so for their MRS. degree, and if they weren't married by the time they graduated, they were called late bloomers and took jobs teaching until their beaus finally proposed and they could drop the pretense of wanting to work.
But fast-forward 20 years and the world had changed. Women, newly liberated, started the tightrope waltz of balancing work and families -- with little or no help from the corporate workplace I might add. On-site day care, volunteer days to work in your child's classroom, flex time so you could meet the school bus -- all things that weren't even a gleam in the corporate eye yet.
Back in the 1970s, the SAHM discussion took on very personal overtones: It was more about whether mothers should want to work -- ignoring the fact that many needed to. Those who constructed the glass ceilings for women went so far as to suggest there was something suspect -- and wrong -- about a woman who was interested in becoming financially untethered to a man. And if you were a mom who had an employed husband, you were often accused not just of dereliction of your maternal duty, but you also would be told how your employment stole a job from a more-deserving breadwinner -- i.e., a man.
Then of course there were the children. There were dire predictions made about all those latchkey kids -- the ones who rode the school bus home, unlocked the door of an empty house and fixed their own milk-and-cookie snacks and, in some cases, even started dinner for the family. Funny how so many of them turned out to be self-reliant young adults, but I digress.
The attacks on moms who worked in an office took many forms. They were told that things like personal growth and the ability to derive satisfaction from a career were superfluous to their happiness and should come secondary to a woman's obligation to raise the children she produced. The men -- you know the other half of the production factory -- were somehow relieved of that obligation. Watch a few episodes of "Father Knows Best" to see inequality in action.
"Career girls," as women who pushed their way into the workforce were called, faced their biggest hurdle when they started families. The assumption was that their baby showers would double as their retirement fetes. Coming back to work with a baby at home was near impossible because unless you had a willing mother or mother-in-law living close by, you had few choices for day care. And don't count on your spouse for help here. His salary was undoubtedly larger, he faced no glass ceiling impeding his career ascension, and getting back to our friendly caveman, the hunting and gathering still fell under his societal purview.
And yet somehow, perhaps just through the sheer force of numbers, moms who worked out of the house prevailed in their right to do so. As their volume increased in the workplace, so did the workplace accommodations. Dads stepped up to the parenting plate, often availing themselves of paternity leaves and urging corporate accommodations so that working parents could juggle more efficiently. Younger men, many raised by working mothers, saw women in the workplace differently and with that, opened more doors.
And yet the debate on SAHMs versus working-out-of-the-home moms still lingers. It beats me why except that it never fails to grab headlines and raise the public blood pressure. Yes, Ann Romney had her hands full with five sons. To say she didn't work a day in her life would be a fallacy. She worked plenty. As a woman of means, she also no doubt had some hired help. Here's hoping that she created a work environment that allowed that help to care for their own kids as well as hers.