Tuesday’s New York Times piece on women at schools like Yale who plan to become stay-at-home moms addresses an important phenomenon. Unfortunately, it makes little more than passing mention of the underlying issues of class and gender which shape the choices the article pitches largely as curious lifestyle decisions.
Class divisions deeply inform women’s and men’s decision about parenting in work in multiple ways. They make it possible for some women to picture living and raising children comfortably off of the income of an exceptionally well-paid spouse without making the economic sacrifices most families have to when one parent stays home. At the same time, class divisions leave other women in positions where the work-family compromises they would like to strike as working mothers are unfeasible because they lack the bargaining power to achieve the schedules and receive the support from employers that they need. So while class makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to maintain economic security while leaving the workforce, class also makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to balance work and family responsibilities.
Underlying the responsibilities in play here are gendered conceptions which haven’t yet changed as much as many of us would like to think. It’s difficult to argue with those who suggest that a woman’s choice to stay home and raise kids deserves respect, but it’s important to consider the ways in which social structures and pressures constrict and inform that choice. The debate need not be confined to one side which argues that women and men should both be evaluated by the standards by which we’ve traditionally judged men and another side which argues for an essentialist, “difference feminist” understanding of what women are and should be that trots out old tropes about their essential nature. Instead, progressive feminists can and should take on traditional paradigms of male and female identity behavior, arguing for a shared, less gendered repetoire of goals and actions which makes traditionally male and female jobs and tropes accessible to both genders. Women who want to build homes with men can’t make fully free choices about how to balance family and work until men are equally challenged and expected to make equivalent sacrifices as well.
We’re not there yet.