Last week as President Obama took questions from a group at Rhode Island College, he made the following remark:
"Too often, parents have no choice but to put their kids in cheaper day care that maybe doesn’t have the kinds of programming that makes a big difference in a child’s development… or the best programs may be too far away. And sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”
Now, to be charitable to the President, who was speaking off the cuff, let's assume that he meant he did not want women to have to face the choice between motherhood and higher-paying careers. That is a nice idea. It's a nice thing to say. Women and men face a lot of challenging choices in life, and it seems like it would be nice to live in a world where we didn't face any negative tradeoffs.
But the fact is that our choices do come with tradeoffs, and we all must face choices. Mona Charen helpfully breaks down the unrealistic idealism behind the President's remark:
"What will the government do — mandate that employers offer women who took perhaps years off to care for children the same pay and promotions they would have earned had they remained in the workforce? How would that be remotely possible?
You’d have to assume that the woman in question would have remained for all those years at the same firm, and would have been a good employee. You’d also have to assume that the employer remains in business, that the kind of work the mom did is still needed and hasn’t been superseded by technological or other changes. And what would become of the employee, male or female, who was doing the mom’s work while she stayed home with the kids? Besides, if firms were required to pay above the market value to returning mothers, wouldn’t that discourage hiring?"
Essentially, it is virtually impossible for government regulations or programs to eliminate all the career-related downsides of parenting. Spending time at home nurturing a young child requires sacrifice, and the President is correct that the responsibilities of childcare more often fall on women. As a young woman who hopes to one day be a mother, I very much sympathize with the conundrum: Will I sell myself short if I drop out of the work force to focus on my family? On the other hand, will I regret missing out on my children's childhoods if I "lean in" to a more demanding (and more lucrative) career? These choices are not easy for women (or men). But romanticizing about a world without tradeoffs won't make the issue go away.
There is some good news: Advances in technology and new workplace policies are offering some women a third way, allowing women to remain attached to the work force through telecommuting or work-from-home jobs, even while parenting. And employers often offer this flexibility voluntarily, along with family leave, because they want to compete for today's working women, who desire such benefits. As of 2007, 82 percent of American workers had access to some kind of paid leave benefit at their job. And today an estimated 20 to 30 million Americans work from home at least one day per week.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as Mollie Hemingway and others have pointed out, we live in a culture that almost obsessively defines success as career success, in dollar amounts or notoriety. Obviously, we esteem some careers above others. We can make the mistake of thinking that people in high-paying careers are more valuable people than people in low-paying jobs. That's just not true. There are some skills and experiences that are more valuable in the workforce, but every man and woman is created equal with equal value. The contributions stay-at-home parents make to their families and to society at large should not be overlooked.
And there may be real financial benefits to dividing home labor: Parents who decide to stay at home often free up their partner to work in more demanding (and more lucrative) jobs, which can make the whole family better off. Obviously this model isn't right for every family. But it's not wrong for every family either.
And what about the joy of motherhood? There are some things for which we cannot assign a dollar amount of value. The experience of parenting, although costly in many ways, also comes with great joys and deeply meaningful rewards. It's no wonder that, despite the downsides, many women do decide to stay home with the kids. And if they can afford it, and that's what makes them happiest, then that IS a choice we want Americans to make.