Sustainable Motherhood

Carla: This is worth talking about.

It turns out that when it comes to the working mom/at-home mom conversation, we have been dealing with a “straw woman” of sorts. It seems to be news to the people who write the news that the majority of stay-at-home moms are there not because of some deep-seated value about the family but rather because economics sometimes make working a non-option.

I think this survey has the potential to be a conversation changer for women because it challenges the image of the stay-at-home mom, the one that has us pressed and dressed and busy and satisfied because, while we could have chosen to work, we love our children and don’t want to leave them in the care of strangers. The census survey suggests that far more women stay home out of necessity than out of moral superiority. Unless a second income (and we might need to do a whole other post on the problems with calling one person’s job a “second income” like it’s a slush fund) brings in enough money to cover childcare, the increase in taxes, transportation, and the expenses that come when all of the adults in the family are working all day (more meals out, hiring someone to clean the house, less time for bargain hunting, etc.) or it’s your life’s calling, it’s hardly worth it.

And this false image leaves all kinds of women out of the picture altogether–poor women, single parents, women with limited education, women with limited access to suitable childcare. That these are often the women staying home is the big news of this survey, but I know lots of the women reading this blog fall into at lease one of those categories. Many of these women might very well be home because they really want to be. But others want to be able to work, want to be able to finish a degree, want to do everything they can to build a better life for themselves and their children.

The reason that’s a problem is that when it comes to public policy about issues that impact families, the prevailing image wins. So policies get made with the assumption that women have health care, that if they need more money they can just go get jobs, that quality childcare is readily available and affordable. As long as that’s the person we think we’re talking about when we talk about at-home moms, we won’t really be able to move forward and create a culture in which women have real choices about how to support their families emotionally, physically, and financially.

Caryn: Of course, I too heard about this study—and had been meaning to write about it but I was too busy getting “pressed and dressed.” NOT! (Great image, Carla. Nice one.)

But I loved how this study shattered the image of the at-home mom, why we’re here, what we look like, what language we speak.

In fact, my own decision to “stay home” had a lot to do with economics. Still does. Since non-profit Christian publishing pays less than just about any other profession on the planet, when I was pregnant with my oldest son, it wasn’t too difficult to see that my salary wouldn’t cover all those things you mention.

But where you lose me, Carla, is when you start talking about “public policies.” You know those words make me itch and twitch when I’m pressed and dressed. Because I think you’d like to see all sorts of social programs spring up to give free or cheap or paid-for-by-rich-people childcare and (whatever else to make it easier on moms to work if they want to. I’d love to see programs like this pop up—run by churches and non-profits. But the government having their hands in this, you know, gives me the heebs.) (Note: Isn’t it nice that my husband is RUNNING FOR OFFICE and I show such public disdain for the government…. Think is a problem?)

And clearly, we need to CUT taxes on working families. Give us HUGER deductions for our massive health care bills. Stop taxing our food, our wine (please), our cars, our pizza, our parking.

And what I’d REALLY like to see is instead of mandating all sorts of rules and regulations that companies have to abide by regarding maternity leave and family-friendly policies and the like for moms everywhere to boycott companies with crap policies, give our patronage to family-friendly businesses, and, really, have us start our own businesses, make our own rules.

It’s still a man’s world, baby. Let’s make it a mom’s world. That’s how we create that culture where motherhood is not only sustainable but flourishes. So sayeth the weirdo Libertarian Feminist.

Carla: This is the sort of thing that’s going to come back to bite you when you’re running for president .(Would a libertarian run for president? I don’t understand you people at all.)

I don’t think public policy should necessarily be relegated to the government–local, state, or federal–but it seems like that’s often where these sorts of decisions play out. It took the federal government to ensure that a woman can stay in the hospital for more than 12 hours after she has a baby and that her job can’t be taken away if she takes a maternity leave. It would be incredible if the church or non-profits had that kind of power and influence.

At the same time, I’m totally with you that we can be agents of justice by asking questions, setting aside assumptions, pushing for change, and putting our money where our values are. And really, that’s what I’m getting at here. The Mommy Revolution isn’t just about the airing of grievances, it’s about making life sustainable for all mothers regardless of their circumstances. So what can we be doing–what kind of things are we doing–that help make life better for other moms. Big picture, grassroots, small steps, whatever it is, please share your ideas!



15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Robyn on October 29, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Great discussion! Not only are there women who are NOT working because of economics, there are tons who ARE working because of economics. For health insurance. To pay the bills. We’re staring down doubling our childcare costs come next July when I return to work after Sprout is born in February. Despite that, I make enough (thank God!) that A) childcare will be less than 30% of my income, and B) we simply cannot pay our bills without the rest of my income. Economic realities are a huge part of life decisions. Of course, the ability to work and make the income that I do is also a privilege, one of opportunity and education that many women do not have.

    “Moral superiority,” what a laugh! Women who have the luxury of choosing to forgo paid employment and “stay home” with their children without compromising their families’ economic stability are hardly morally superior to those without a choice (both those who must work and those who can’t). They are simply in a privileged position. Like any privilege (racial, attractiveness, physical ability, gender), it is important to recognize it for what it is and not allow it to cause us to look down upon those who don’t have it.

    Of course, though I respect Caryn, my socialist self sides with Carla on this one. 🙂 I don’t see selfish, greedy businesses that only care about profits instituting family-friendly policies without being forced to. It would be nice to think we could simply boycott them, but how many moms do you know who refuse to shop at Wal-Mart? (Besides me, I mean. I won’t spend a dime there, yet they are still in business.) They are HORRIBLE to their employees, but people still shop there. Their customers don’t care. They care about the total on their receipts.

    How do we get people to care? I don’t want social programs paid for by rich people. I want everyone to care enough about everyone else that we all willingly contribute to the well-being of every other person and for every person to be equally valued for her contributions to the whole, doctor and ditch-digger alike. In lieu of that, I’ll take the government forcing those with power not to take advantage of the weak and vulnerable.


  2. Just a quick reminder: It’s not like our greedy government institutions have all kinds of family-friendly policies either. : )


    • Posted by Robyn on October 30, 2009 at 4:48 pm

      Different people will have different opinions on what truly does the most to help mothers. Each of us should do what jibes with our consciences that we believe will support mothers. I believe that things like paid family leave, paid time off to care for sick children, health care reform that ensures affordable health coverage for all, subsidized daycare, and good public schools are beneficial for mothers (and fathers!) and children. Some things the church can do, such as subsidize daycare for single moms for example if the church has a childcare center or provide food from a food bank. Some things the church simply is not equipped to do, such as buy health insurance for those denied or who can’t afford it, or provide paid family leave and paid sick time. So I will do what I can to advocate for those things publicly, while doing individually what I can to help those I know are in need. Others will disagree with my opinions on what actually helps people and will do otherwise. I can accept that. They will advocate for their own beliefs, as well they should!

      I think it is good and important for us, as believers, to hold loosely to money and be generous with those who are in need. We helped our friend hire a lawyer for her divorce when her husband left her and her two children for his mistress. That’s something I can do, and I do it gladly even if it means forgoing something in my own life for a month or two.

      Why is it anyone else’s responsibility to provide? Because God calls us to do so, to care for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the crippled. There will always be abuses; I understand that. But there will also always be those who truly are in need and survive because of the help they receive. I won’t stop giving (even through my taxes) just because someone out there might not “deserve” it. That might be me someday needing medicaid and food stamps!

      It’s not a bad thing to care and want to help others. Only people will differ on how they believe to be the best way to do that. Which is fine.

      Personally, I hate money. I hate the entire concept of it. I wish we could just live in a world where everyone had what they needed, everyone supported everyone else, and money didn’t exist. Someday we will! I hold tightly to that hope.


  3. Posted by Cindy on October 30, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Why is it any body else’s responsibility to provide for me when I chose to have children? Why is the government, or my employer, responsible for the consequences of my choices. If government did only what it was established to do (provide for our mutual defense and regulate inter-state commerce), there would be plenty of money in each of our pockets to pay our own way. I resent paying for my lazy 20-year-old neighbor (who’s already stolen everything portable in my house) to sit on his butt all day because his (extended) family (12+ members under one roof) lives in a house subsidized by the government and eats food provided courtesy of the Link card and receives healthcare courtesy of Medicaid. I support my lazy 19-year-old son myself.

    It’s nobody’s responsibility to make my life easier! I want to make my own choices, I should be prepared to carry my own consequences.

    Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, this sounds harsher than I really feel. But we can’t all get a free ride at the expense of the “rich”. IT’S THEIR MONEY, not mine. Jeez.

    Sorry about the rant. Low blood-sugar. Maybe someone should buy me lunch!


  4. Posted by Carla on October 30, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Okay, before we end up in a political conversation, my hope for this post is that we think about what we can do for each other, for moms who don’t have the resources we have–time, education, money, family, etc. For example, I know a woman who knits hats for refugee families here in Minnesota. It’s not a huge thing, but it means a ton to the women who come here with young children who have no winter clothes (and yes, I suppose they could choose to move to Florida, but they come here because they have family here or because a church sponsored them or whatever. Regardless of how and why they get here, they are here and having warm clothes for themselves and their children gives these moms one less thing to worry about.


  5. Posted by Cindy on October 30, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    The point of that, Carla, is that it is something you choose to do. No one is holding a gun to your head. I think that we each need to be extraordinarily generous with our time and possessions. Many people feel that it’s someone else’s responsibility. That there’s a program for that, whatever that is.

    My hope is that, as moms, we can respect each other whatever our choices. Recognize that God has an individual call on each of our lives, and that call can change based on stage of life. We need to encourage each other. I have a friend who recognizes that, as a single mom, i have things I’d like to do and can’t. She’s great about slipping me a little money once in a while, or buying me some garbage sticker, or taking me to lunch–or out to a craft show. She’s married with kids and works part of the year (education aide). She has more resources. But I have experienced some stupid-boy-child stuff that she’s just going through now. I know the system, and I’ve weathered the experiences. I can give her a non-judging shoulder to cry on.

    No one knows what anyone else is really going through. We need to love, support and encourage each other instead of telling each other what to do. It’s tough for everyone right now. We need to be gentle with each other.


  6. Posted by Carla on October 30, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Cindy, I totally agree with you–gentleness, compassion, encouragement is totally what I’m talking about.
    I don’t really care how good, compassionate acts of justice and generosity come about, I just want to do my part to make sure they do and sometimes I get blinded by my own crap and my own needs and my own little pity party. Living out the compassion and mercy and gentleness to which God calls us is a deeply personal responsibility that sometimes has systemic implications and sometimes not. If individuals and churches are making good things happen in the lives of others, then I want nothing more that for the government to keep its mitts to itself and let them do their thing. When the government is getting in the way of goodness, we the people need to step up and push back. And when the government has good ideas, we the people need to stand up and say “More of that please!!!” Of course what that “good” looks like is pretty subjective, but I don’t think we can put the government–or corporations or individuals–in singular boxes of good and evil.


  7. Posted by Carla on October 30, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    One other quick thing and then I’ll shut up. The women this census study is talking about aren’t necessarily asking for a hand-out. If I’m reading the article correctly, they are women who, because of their level of education, are not necessarily able to get jobs that pay enough to make up for the expense of childcare. They can’t afford further education or the childcare necessary to squeeze in an education. So they are at home even though they don’t necessarily want to be. So my question is all of this is how do we–as individuals, as groups of friends, as communities of faith–support women like this and other women who are trying to break the cycle of poverty or just trying to build a better life for themselves and their children?


  8. it’s weird–when i saw this i thought, hey, i have read something recently about this (and, no offense, but not in the washington post b/c i don’t read that one…).

    you can see what i read here:

    and what i find interesting is that no matter what we read, it’s always slanted one way or another, even if it’s just slanted in the direction of the passion the journalist has for whatever particular issue.

    i love what the writer (in the NY times article) says about how it really shouldn’t be an argument over who stays home, or why. it SHOULD be about making policies so that moms have more of a chance to actually get out and get jobs.

    because, like you have already mentioned here, it’s a catch 22. you know, my sister works but she has free child care through her mother-in-law, who watches her 2 year old at least 3 days a week so she can have her own counseling office. which is so amazing, and i’m stinking jealous.

    i work from home, but i long to have an office i can go to. i’m just not willing to spend so much of what i make on child care, like you guys have mentioned here.

    and even when my husband was out of work (twice), we found it more cost-effective for him to stay home and me to work from home and draw the public health care for our kids (read: medicaid) because it would have cost way more for me to buy the clothes i need to work at an office, the gas, the potential child care (even if he wasn’t working he still could have had more freedom to apply or hunt for jobs if i was around and not gone 8-5).

    anyway, i don’t know much about politics so i don’t really know how policies would work. and i do feel very strongly that the church should be doing what the government has been (or not been) doing. the church should be caring for the poor, the elderly, the homeless.

    but, let’s face it: on such a large scale, the church doesn’t do this. so in the imperfect world we live in, we probably need both.

    i do like what cindy was saying about the give and take. like people helping her monetarily and her giving back with parenting wisdom. i used to feel guilty about people giving us stuff when my husband was out of work–i despised the feel of a handout. but then i realized that we gave back to these people in other ways, just not financially. so i had to let it go.

    one other thing: i know that cindy said she was reacting to her next-door neighbor in the first comment, but it still got under my skin a little because i think we need to fight against these generalities at all costs. it makes us complacent. it makes us feel entitled. it makes us judgmental. and cindy, i’m not saying you are any of these things. or maybe i’m saying we are all these things. and we have to really work hard to make sure we don’t let one situation color our view of the problems at large.

    i guess i think back to when we were without work and i think it seemed to a lot of people that my husband was too lazy or i wasn’t doing enough or we were just relying on government handouts. but that wasn’t the case, and they didn’t know the extent of our situation, you know?

    one last thing: i have to say i’m excited to read something like this here. i have been torn about reading some of the postings lately because i tend to be a negative nellie and the lamenting about this or that related to mothering was just making me fall further down the negative hole, so to speak.

    but giving us this type of discussion is so fruitful, and i think it really shows what a positive effect this blog could potentially have on women’s lives!


  9. This is an interesting conversation for me to watch. During my life as a mom I’ve gone from full-time working outside the home with children in daycare, to working from home with a flexible schedule, to now being a (not-by-choice-thank-you-NAFTA) stay at home mom.

    When I was still employed, I often wondered what it would be like to stay at home full time. But, I enjoyed my career and the money that came with it. I enjoyed that we weren’t stretched to the max every month in paying our bills. And, I didn’t feel like it was at the expense of my kids. I didn’t see anything wrong with them being in quality daycare while I worked.

    Now that I’m not working, and I stay home with my youngest, I still feel that way. In fact, I often feel like he is missing out by not being in a “program”. There are so many things my older kids got from these that I can really appreciate now that they’re older. And, no, I don’t feel like I am any closer to my youngest after nearly a year staying home with him than I was with his siblings who were in daycare at this age. With kids, time with them is what you make it.

    With that being said, now that I’m looking at trying to become re-employed, I’m realizing that for many women, the options aren’t as prevalent as I once thought.

    I had a great career, that paid well and helped provide for my family. But, alot of what we had was excess. At the time I couldn’t see it, but it clearly was. When I was working from home, I was spending more time with my family–which I loved–but I ultimately think this is the one thing that cost me my job when it came down to the logistics of which ones of us would be sold off in the buy-out. It’s much easier to let someone go that you don’t have to look at in the face everyday. Now, I’m at home which in many ways, I totally love, but in many other ways makes me long for my career again.

    However, like never before, I can see that if I do return to work I will probably have to take about a 75% paycut in order to start over in a new industry. With that being said, I have to really look at whether or not it’s even worth it. When you add in daycare, meals, clothing, cleaning, etc. it just doesn’t make sense. I’d be working 40+ hours a week now for what? A few dinners out each month? I don’t think so. My being home full time has more benefits for my family than that.

    So, for me, it’s more economics than morality. It always has been. I never felt like working was morally wrong. I still don’t. I worked because it was economically beneficial for me to do so for my family. Now, I’m not working because it is economically beneficial for me to do so for my family. I think many more women fall into this category than we realize. I’m glad it’s finally being pointed out.


  10. Posted by Steve B. on October 31, 2009 at 7:47 am

    Yeah, there is a lot of broken stuff that needs fixing. And even though I’m on the “inside” of the brokenness on a daily basis, I still don’t have an answer. I (attempt to) counsel people with devastating drug addictions and every day I encounter men and women who have GROSSLY taken advantage of and even abused the social service system. Cynical, pragmatic taxpayer me would say “well, stop using drugs and you wouldn’t be in such a mess.” But because God clearly has a sense of humor and always enjoys teaching me difficult lessons, He has equipped me and provided me opportunities to try to be part of the solution and not the problem.

    So I guess my 2 cents would be that it is much easier for me to enact positive change on a grass-roots, individual basis. When I see people (especially mothers) overcome addiction and start getting their lives back I start to have a little bit of hope that things can change. I do my best to avoid politics and the false hope that the government can fix any of us. Only Christ can do that. And as always, I am not trying to preach to anyone because I would be the first one struck by lightning if I were.

    P.S. Festivus is for the airing of grievances.


  11. Posted by Heather on November 2, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    This is an interesting post to read, plus the comments, as my husband and I both just quit our jobs (which we like) and are moving from MN to CO in a mere eleven days. We don’t have jobs in CO, or our own place to live. We’ll be living with friends for a few weeks (read: four adults, three kids under five yrs old, two large dogs and two cats) and then decide what to do next depending on the jobs we find. We’re both looking for full time employment right now and have agreed that whoever finds a full time job first takes it and the other will find something part time to fill in the gaps, so we can, like, eat. We are taking what we find and working with it, and we’re glad to do it and scared to do it and excited to do it! So many uncertainties, but if it means that we both bag groceries at Safeway on opposite shifts so we can eat, then we will. We are approaching this as the first steps of this leg of our adventure of life.

    I will say that in the back of my head I hope that he finds a full time job and not me. I hope that he finds such a great job that I don’t have to work much for the next couple of years. I like the current couple of days I’m home with my kids and would like a bit more. The reality of him finding a job where I won’t have to work are slim to none…and if it was available the likely sacrifice would be that he wouldn’t be home. Not an option. I’d rather work and share the responsibilities than my husband not be home.

    Really, it’s all a crap shoot. We’re all making the best decisions we can given the resources available. I plan to continue to participate in the advancement of people caring for people through gentleness, compassion and encouragement whether I’m getting paid for the hard work I do (a ‘job’) or not (staying home with the kids)…I just have to keep my eyes peeled for the best ways to stay engaged in the process.


  12. Posted by Lori on November 5, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Wow, I’m so bummed I missed this post! This subject has been on my mind daily for 4+ years, and I’ve written an entire book about it in my head about ten times. Since getting pregnant with my first, the economics of parenting has thrown my world upside down. I dearly wanted to stay home with my babies, and since my take-home pay was barely more than the cost of childcare, it was an easy decision to give up my job. I did try beforehand to campaign at my workplace for better benefits, or actually any benefits at all. A colleague and I wrote a substantial – and very reasonable, imho – proposal to our company for family-friendly policies, and we were soundly rejected on all counts. (Caryn: great idea to boycott companies with poor family-friendly policies, but then you’d have to stop taking any work from our beloved CTI. They’ve got zilch. Thank God the govt requires 6 wks paid leave, or mothers wouldn’t even get that at CTI.) But to be honest, I don’t know that any kind of policy is going to cover what we’ve needed. Because having kids is just a huge explosion in our lives, and each parent deals with it differently. For instance, ideally I’d have had the first year totally off, and then had childcare for them a few hours a day, gradually working up to full-time preschool at the age of 3, and I could get back to my career and work happily ever after. But what kind of employer is going to bear with me through all these years of varying hours and for however many children I choose to have? And that’s assuming that I’d get paid enough to cover childcare and have enough left over to contribute to our household finances. The fact is, having kids takes an enormous financial toll, whether you’re earning or not. I dearly wish I would’ve been given a road map a decade ago that would’ve shown me what was to come, because then I could’ve planned and prepared much better. But family life is messy and unpredictable, and it often seems to collide with practical logistics like finding ways to pay for food and housing. And what we perceive as our kids’ needs plus our own needs/callings/desires, not to mention those of our husbands, all contribute to a very complicated set of reasons for why we work or stay at home – or do something in between.


  13. […] reading and eating, the DIY you find irresistible, that link to the article that made you think or rethink, and what it is that’s inspiring you lately.  In doing so, you’ll probably inspire me […]


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