Who Speaks for the Children?

The big news about families this week is the Pew Research Center’s report that 4 in 10 households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or the primary earner for her family.  This statistic has quadrupled since 1960 and is the highest on record.  There is a lot to think about here, since there are implications about the role of women, the nature of the economy, the meaning for men, the impact on marriage, and seemingly last – although hardly least – the meaning for our children.

An article about this report points out that this change reflects evolving family dynamics.  Included in the factors mentioned are the greater acceptance and expectation that married women join the work force, and the role of the recession in pushing women onto primary earning roles.  Also identified is the fact that it is more common for single women to raise children on their own, and that nearly two thirds of the mothers who are chief breadwinners for their families are single parents.

The attitude of mothers toward working has also changed.  Since the recession began there has been an increase in the percentage of mothers who say that their ideal situation would be to work full time rather than part time or not at all.  It is not clear whether or not this change in preference is related to the need, or wish, to earn more.  This may be the case, since of the group of mothers who are chief breadwinners, most are single mothers who generally earn less than those married mothers who as primary breadwinners create a higher family income.

It is interesting that the primary focus in reports of these new findings has been the change in earning power of women and men, with women increasingly filling the role in families once assumed to be that of men.  Highlighted is the question of the potential impact of this shift on relationships between men and women, and the implications for   the stability of marriages.  Very little attention has been given to questions about the impact of such changes on children.  The report indicates that about half of Americans say that children are better off if their mother is at home and doesn’t have a job.  Yet, most Americans acknowledge that the increasing number of working women enable families to live comfortably.  This is the well known fact that to live “comfortably” these days requires two incomes – although the definition of “comfortably” may vary.

What is reflected here is the long-standing, unresolved conflict between the needs of  mothers – and the needs of children.  In this instance – as in others – the needs of children are acknowledged, but receive little attention.  The question, of course, is what is the effect on children of these changes?  The conflict of needs involved is real. There   has been much discussion about how the conflict between different needs can be balanced, but few concrete solutions have been offered.

One breakdown in the statistics reported that has not been given, is the ages of the children of those mothers who are primary or sole breadwinners.  The report refers to mothers of children under the age of 18, but that could cover anything from infants to high school seniors.  It goes without saying that there is a vast difference in the needs of these two extremes, not to mention differences in the stages along the way.  Unmentioned in the report is anything about child care provisions for young children and supervision of those older.

The acknowledgement of the conflict of needs that exists between women as mothers, and children, is fairly recent.  For a significant number of years the role division between the sexes was taken for granted, as was the idea that women’s needs were met as wives and mothers.  The modern women’s movement played a major role in bringing about change both in attitudes toward women’s needs, and in achieving greater opportunity in the workplace.  The change in the economy has now moved that along.

Unfortunately, the early struggle for increased opportunity was focused on equality, the idea that women could function in the workplace just as men did.  The issue of motherhood was either disregarded or dealt with unrealistically, so that the problems of child care and the needs of children were ignored.  But the fact is that women had to be treated unequally in order to have equal opportunity in the workplace.  What that means is that changing the role of women required providing for the traditional jobs that had been filled by women, primarily the job of child care.  Mothers needed a support system in order to function in the workplace.

This basic problem has still not been solved, and the resistance to doing so remains.  Part of the resistance lies in the fact that there is no solution that will duplicate the family life that existed in the old division of labor.  That role division placed too great a burden on both women and men.  Nor is it the only good way of raising children.  But in the changing attention given to different needs, the balance has shifted in important ways away from children. 

The search for finding balance continues, with shifting priorities from women, to women as mothers, to men, to men as fathers, and to living comfortably.  Helping families provide the appropriate care for children needs to be a societal priority.

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