KIDS GROW UP
Over time, there is less to do at home. Kids go to school, creating space for other activities. Mothers of elementary-school kids will point out that they’re perpetually called upon to stay home with a sick child or bring the child to the doctor, so it’s still difficult balancing work and family. But their free time keeps increasing, until eventually there is quite a bit of it. Many women go back to part-time work or try to resume the full-time jobs they once had.
Christine eventually did finish her dissertation, but with her husband’s legal career more established, his employment took priority. Fifteen years after her first child’s birth, her husband is a partner in a law firm, while she works as an adjunct professor. Sally now works part-time in an office—a job she loves—while continuing to be a stellar mother. On the other hand, Betty is a friend who spent many years mainly at home with her children, though teaching parttime. Once her kids were in high school and college, she got back to doing research, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant set aside for supporting women. A paleobotanist who studies climate change, she is constantly flying off to places like Iceland and
Ethiopia. Eventually she earned tenure, academia’s coveted prize of a job for life.
Often, but not always, the full-time worker advances and the full-time parent falls behind. One study says that out of the 93 percent ofAmerican mothers who try to return to work, 74 percent will succeed in finding jobs. A large number, but not large enough. And the way in which women return is not always what they consider ideal. Just 43 percent will return to full-time, professional jobs. It’s on this basis that a pro-work argument can be made most persuasively. The argument would be that if there isn’t a road back to work, then a woman really had better not stay home to begin with. Even if the first few years are extremely satisfying or it makes financial sense at the time, eventually this choice may cost her in important areas in the long term. She may wind up less happy; if marital winds shift direction, she may wind up in dire straits, with little autonomy; and she may find herself stagnating, not growing. It’s notable that the bored housewives Betty Friedan wrote about in her late 1950s book The Feminine Mystique were not caring for small children, but were mothers trying to fill time while their husbands and school-age children were away all day. Eventually we will be unable to reach for what’s best in us, one might argue, if we make the decision to stay home with our kids. Mothers may miss out on the good life at the end of the stay-at-home road, even if they find it at the beginning.
So has a mother made a foolish choice if she spends some number of years outside of full-time work, and as a result can never rise to the status she might otherwise have had? Has she made her own life worse than it might have been otherwise? On the other side of the ledger, there is the possibility that those years may have been the best of her life. Later years may be pretty good too, despite the lower wages. There are a variety of experiences here, and not just one possibility. What I think we can say for sure is that some women will feel limited by their inability to get back on a full-time career track, and that this inability slows progress toward a world that many of us would love to see—one in which women make as much money as men and have as much power and responsibility.
On that basis, we should aim for significant change. Some women wouldn’t leave work to begin with if there were options to work half- or part-time for a few years. An academic woman I know did have that option and now, twenty years later, her career is flourishing. Likewise, on-site day care could make it more attractive to continue working part- or full-time. For those who do shift to part-time or who leave work, assistance with returning could be offered. The assistance Betty received was unusual but could be more common. Another option is for employers to make a concerted effort to consider current part-time workers—often mothers—when new people are hired, instead of favoring the youngest applicants just coming out of school. Parental caregiving, by both mothers and fathers, is a profound human good that shouldn’t have to be passed up so that people can hang on to their jobs. Family-friendly policies both accommodate that good and advance broad social goals, helping us toward a world in which women and men play more nearly equal roles.
But you, newly home with a baby, have to make your decision now, in the world as it is. For plenty of women (and most men) it’s straightforward. Reaching for the best in themselves, and maintaining their identity, and contributing to a higher household income all point toward remaining at work. It doesn’t even have to be a terrible wrench to part with baby in the morning. I have spoken with women who actually find it a relief to leave the home environment for work, exactly as I believe many fathers do. There’s no reason to think these parents are ignoring the call of duty—there is no duty to be the hands-on full-time caregiver for one’s children. And there’s no reason to think these parents are making their own lives worse.
I would urge the same reading of parents who choose to be at home, whether for their own fulfillment or because they think it makes more economic sense. Rarely are they ignoring the call of duty—they’re under no obligation to remain in the workforce. They’re also not opting for the bad life for themselves. Yet there are risks in the long term. With a newborn baby in the house, it feels like you are beginning a whole new way of life, one that will last forever. But being a hands-on parent is one of the many occupations that we can’t count on for a lifetime, like being a model or a rock star or an athlete, and it has the added problem that it’s not remunerative, so puts us in a state of dependence on others. We can’t be sure there will be paths back to the kind of work and income we want. Those uncertainties could be fixed to some degree by a workplace that accommodates parenthood better, but for a person making decisions today, there’s no way to eliminate the uncertainties. Leaving work to be a hands-on parent is a risky business, but then again, so are many moves in life that we rightly respect and value.
And so we are now caring for children, whether also going to work or not. One immediate issue for new parents is that our children seem to come in two flavors: boy and girl. The philosophical parent will want to think carefully about what to make of that, and whether it’s even entirely true. What should parents think and do about gender?