I’m disappointed that both politicians and the media trivialize the devaluation of household labor by framing it as a “mommy war” and a “spat” rather than a critical economic issue. Some news reports characterized the comments by Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen as a catfight, and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama attempted to distance themselves from the problem. Both Romney and Rosen are making important points, yet the media and candidates deflect a real economic problem and pit women against each other.
Women have crusaded for the value of household labor for 150 years because they know that parents who work at home work hard and yet are financially dependent on their partners. Parents who forego wage work lose thousands in potential income and even more in benefits based solely on wage work. Stay-at-home mothers in the U.S. have much smaller pensions then men or women without children and far more likely to be poor than men at retirement age. They may lose control over family assets, and most states do not support legal entitlement to a share of the breadwinner’s income. The parenting work we celebrate in U.S. culture is an economic liability for most of those who perform it. The U.S. lags painfully behind all first-world and many developing nations in family support policies such as family leave and affordable maternal and infant health care. Meanwhile, by ignoring this invisible labor we pretend that the work needed to sustain a family is far less than it really is.
It is also true that many, many families are unable to afford to a parent at home, even if they want to. Families below the poverty line are especially unable to make this choice. A single mother working full time at minimum wage is unable to support her family without government assistance, for which she is publicly shamed as “dependent”— just as the thousands of parents who do not work for wages are “dependent” on a partner’s wages. If she receives welfare assistance, she is not allowed to care for her own children at home for more than a year, and must give them over to the (underpaid) care of another.
The lack of support for care-work and low wages paid to those who perform it are part of the nation’s economic problem. The fact is, the economy and family survival today depend on women’s wage labor, and the economy also depends on the unwaged labor that sustains our human capital and thus benefits all of us, yet is never figured into our GDP. Politicians should wake up to this issue and pay parenting more than lip service — if they treat this as the real issue it is rather than a “mommy war,” they may speak to many of the women voters they hope to win over.
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Jane Simonsen of Davenport is an
associate professor of Women’s/Gender Studies at Augustana College.