April 13, 2012

On Mommy Track Choices

Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen stepped in a pile of it this week when she stated that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life. I don’t know much about Hilary Rosen, nor do I know anything about her personal life. I probably know less about Ann Romney, except that she has multiple sclerosis and raised five sons, all adults now.
From where I sit as a Baby Boomer—albeit a mother, daughter, sister, aunt, worker—I know it is all about choices.
Since Betty Friedan wrote the book about the “problem with no name,” since Gloria Steinem first published Ms., since Hillary Rodham Clinton defied cookie-baking for the practice of law, the buzzword for women has been choice.
My mother had no choice. Though she was educated as an elementary school teacher, she was fired as soon as her pregnancy with me showed on her petite frame. We couldn't have small children with a teacher who was pregnant, even a teacher who had been married for two years.
Perhaps what Ms. Rosen was trying to say about the former Massachusetts First Lady is that Mrs. Romney had the choice, the choice to stay home and raise her five children and let her husband worry about serving as the breadwinner. And that was apparently Mr. Romney’s choice also.
Women always have a choice. But for some women, the choice might be “work” or “don’t feed the kids.”
Not all choices are good ones.
My husband and I graduated from college during the last Great Recession. Jobs were scarce and we were grateful to be employed. There was no question that I would work when we had a child. My husband was lucky enough to find a rare tenure-track position in a small university. We had no intended to stay here for a quarter of a century, but the choice of giving up his tenure-track position in an increasingly choppy and scary academic world seemed clear.
I could have chosen to stay home. That choice would have meant we did not buy a home. That choice would have meant we were eligible for government subsidies, as several of his co-workers chose at the time.
Time passed and he made more money.
But we made another choice. That choice was to only have one child. Because neither of us was at the time of our child’s birth in lucrative jobs, we knew that our pooled resources would better serve a one-child household.
For me, the choice was easy because my husband didn’t expect me to come home and fully do the “second shift,” that sociological term for all the work that needs to be done at home after the work day is finished. I also enjoyed my work and felt as if my skill set contributed to the world.
Unlike a lot of men, he took as much or more responsibility for the home front as I did. From the time our son was two until he was in the fifth grade, I had employment that kept me away from home on a lot of nights and weekends. My husband was the one who picked up the slack, not me.
His choice.
Ironically, the year our son left home I lost the lucrative job I had since he was in the fifth grade which had provided the amazing combination of great income and tremendous flexility by working outside an office. When I took the job, I knew it wouldn’t last, but we decided to ride that train until it ran out of track.
When it ran out of track, we made the choice for me to build a home-based business. This was a shift for me; as I took back much of the home front responsibilities from my husband. Now he didn’t have to worry (most of the time) about making dinner, and could more fully focus on his career.
But here’s the point. While I’m not a pointy-headed elitist, I am a lucky person who has pretty much stayed in the middle class, yes, the waning middle class, most of her life.
By luck and by choice, we were able to find a balance between home and work. My son is a compassionate person who saw that men could play just as much of a role in raising a child as a woman does.
I do not condemn women for staying home, though I will get my back up when people diminish the difficulty of working full-time and raising a child. Because of choices and compromises our family made, I think we had the best of both worlds.
For the man who devotes everything to career and leaves all the child rearing to the wife, he is missing something. And the child is missing something. Also, women who are educated and step out of the work force for a time have to recognize that they are competing against those who did not. Again, a choice. Not bad nor good, just a choice.
That being said, I recognize that many women or men don’t have a choice. As I said in the beginning, they may not have a partner or may simply need that second income. This is what I think Hilary Rosen was trying to say, and I suspect Ann Romney cannot fathom.