The stay at home mothers of America have been taking a pounding from the literary elites. Two recent books decry the trend of educated women staying home full-time with children. Linda Hirshman exhorts women to Get to Work, while Leslie Bennetts believes she sees The Feminine Mistake and wonders “Are we giving up too much”? Both Baby Boomer professional women worry that the younger generation is making a mistake. At the very least, these authors argue, women should keep their professional skills fresh, simply as strategic protection against the risk of divorce. But if marriage is a lifelong collaboration between women and men, a good and stable marriage can help women meet both their professional and personal goals. Mothers’ Day is a good time to reflect on spousal cooperation.
The risks these authors cite are real enough. Women who leave the labor force to take full-time care of their children are economically vulnerable. Both Hirshman and Bennetts regale their readers with scary stories of homemaking women whose husbands abandoned them. Middle-aged men are at the peak of their earning power; homemaking women are at their trough. Not surprisingly, women can be seriously harmed if their husbands renege on the marriage agreement.
The Baby Boomer feminist solution is to insist that all adults be in the labor force all the time. But why should we take unilateral divorce as a given? Under “no-fault” divorce rules, a blameless spouse can be abandoned by a faithless spouse for any reason or no reason, without even giving an account of themselves. Most long-term contracts in the economy contain substantial penalties for default or non-performance. It is only marriage which the law treats as a non-contract.
Making marriage a more secure contractual environment in which to perform the long-term project of raising children is just good common sense. Many, many injustices have been perpetrated under no-fault divorce rules, by men and women alike. Surely addressing these injustices is a more important social goal than nudging more and more reluctant mothers of infants and toddlers into the workforce.
The modern feminist movement tried to substitute individual economic security for security within marriage. For instance, paid maternity leave assumes that women want to go back to work as quickly as possible after the birth of a baby. The ideal for a woman worker is that she should behave much like a man as possible. That is old-fashioned feminism.
We need a newer feminism that says we should meet our distinct needs as women. Many women would be better served by policies that increase labor market flexibility than by policies that strive to make their career paths exactly like male career paths. We need to be able to move in and out of the labor force. We need more “on-ramps,” that are steeper and faster, than many of the part-time jobs that mothers returning to work can now find.
But “having it all” over the course of the lifetime requires stability in marriage. The couple can adapt and work together as their family’s needs change. Collaboration inside the household is the great social good that we should be encouraging, and not only for its benefits to women with career aspirations. Children and the wider society benefit when mothers and fathers successfully work together over the course of a lifetime. This collaboration, not the increased employment of women, should be the primary focus of our attention.
Leslie Bennetts unwittingly illustrates this in some of her vignettes. Most of the women she interviewed were wealthy high-powered professionals themselves, or married to high-earning men. Their conversations focused on power and control issues. Here is one of her more memorable interviewees:
“He lost his job last year, and he lost all our money. I was screaming at him for months. I tortured him. ‘You’ve disappointed me! We had this deal; you were going to be very successful, and I was going to take care of the children, and everything was going to be fabulous. But this is not what I bought in for. What good are you now to me?'” (60-61) Bennetts wonders why this intelligent woman didn’t get a job herself, but she makes no comment on the unbelievable cruelty and callousness this woman displayed toward her husband.
One of Bennetts few blue-collar interviewees, a special education teacher married to a air-conditioning repairman, had a more constructive attitude. “My husband doesn’t make a huge amount of money–not good enough for us to plan for college or retirement while I’m at home. We’re looking at each other and thinking, ‘We’ve got a kid going to college and weneed to plan for our son. Now that we’re45 and 42, we’re starting to worry more about saving.” (78-9). Many problems in modern marriage, including financial ones, can be greatly improved by that simple shift from having two “I’s” to having one “We.”
Woman’s role as wife is every bit as important as her role as mother. Spousal love is the platform from which we launch our children into adulthood. Spousal cooperation can also allow mothers to stay home with children without fear, or to return to work in a new or different field. Spousal cooperation can even allows fathers to launch a second career. It is time for a new feminist movement to focus on collaboration between the spouses.
We will be happier, and so will our husbands and children.