The Pew Research Center’s report on the increased number of breadwinner mothers with children under 18 years of age has generated significant commentary. The focus, however, has been either to celebrate the achievement of women in becoming working mothers, or to express anxiety about the impact this portends for husbands and marriage.
Stephanie Coontz, in “The Triumph of the Working Mother”, sees in this the validation of Betty Friedan’s thesis that if American housewives would embark on life long careers “they would be happier and healthier, their marriages would be more satisfying, and their children would thrive.” (On the other hand, it is not at all clear that the majority of working mothers have embarked on “life long careers.”)
Richard H. Thaler, in turn, analyzes the significance of “Breadwinning Wives and Nervous Husbands”, raising questions about the traditional view that the husband is to earn more money than the wife. His focus seems to be how the change taking place will affect men and women’s choice of mate, and what the effect will eventually be on their marriages.
The meaning of this for the care and rearing of children does not seem to be a major concern in any of the discussion. But it is not only the traditional view of who should earn more money that has changed. The traditional gender role division of labor has also changed , and with it the expectation that women would fill their old job description. One can cheer that the world has opened for women while recognizing that no satisfactory replacement for their former role has been found.
The reality of that fact has been addressed largely by families left to fend for themselves as best they can. The discussion, such as it is, tends to be as polarized as so much else in our political life. There are those who believe avidly that mothers should be home caring for their children and that children are damaged in the absence of such care. Yet advocates for women cite all kinds of research studies to prove that children’s development is completely normal when mothers work.
The operative word in the attempt to bridge this divide is balance. But how is it to be translated? The issue is not normal development or damage. The basic problem is the conflict of needs between mothers and children. Mothers have needs that may be economic, but also reflect the need/wish to be more than mothers. Children have needs that may be based on their dependency, but that also reflect the need/wish for care from their mothers. As in every relationship, the challenge is deciding whose needs will prevail at any given point where they conflict.
One mother wisely said that the hard part is not having one absolute answer to this question. For the conflict presents itself daily in the course of everyday life and has to be decided each time it arises. Is my child’s need or want the priority right now, or is mine? The real problem arises when a mother has no choice in how she responds to this question. The dice is loaded when a mother must return to work when a child is a newborn, if she must report to work in the face of inadequate child-care, or if she knows that while at work her young teen agers are without structured activity or other supervision.
Mothers individually deal with the anxiety and guilt these questions provoke, questions that are not answered in the statistics offered about children’s development. A large part of our societal resistance to dealing with the problem is the cherished belief that there is no solution that will or can duplicate the family life that existed in an older division of labor. But as in dealing with all the many societal changes that have taken place in modern times, we need to be creative in finding solutions that do not rest on the sacrifice of any one of the parties in basic human relationships.
Children need not only physical care but the attention of caring, interested adults who don’t necessarily have to be their parents. The cultural investment in one-to-one care, typically currently provided by those with the financial means, is not a solution for present day realities. Whether we call it early childhood education or day care, clearly we need to think in terms of some form of group care for children. Achieving the desirable quality of such care will take a major financial commitment which will require overcoming entrenched resistance to government support.
What is clear is that we will not solve this problem by focusing only on the celebration of women’s success or on bemoaning men’s declining economic status.