The Mommy Economy: A Review of The Feminine Mistake
When I announced to one of my sisters that Jeanine and I plan to work full time after the baby is born (we’re adopting a newborn boy and he arrives in December!), she asked, “What’s the point of having children if you’re both going to work?”
The question, coming from my competitive sister, was hardly a surprise. After all, she gave up her career as a CPA to stay at home with her three young children and in her mind; this was the just the “right” thing to do. With the youngest now in first grade, she went back to work part time. Of course, I wanted to ask: why on earth would you have children if you were going to work?
I didn’t because I already knew the answer: it was based on economics. They need the money. Most families do these days. That said, my sister seems happier (and I think is probably a better mom) when she’s working. These are the same arguments made by Leslie Bennetts in her book: The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?
I met Bennetts recently at a panel discussion in Los Angeles entitled: Baby I’m Bored: When Did Motherhood Become a Career and is it a Professional Disaster? The audio broadcast is available here. It was moderated by the brilliant Meghan Daum:
Forty years ago, the term “stay at home mom” would have been considered redundant. Twenty years ago, “housewife” had become a dirty word and the ability to balance family and career was seen as an extension of female self-respect and empowerment. Today, some women are rejecting the 1980s-era notion of “having it all” by dropping out of the workforce–sometimes permanently–to raise their children. In her book The Feminine Mistake, journalist Leslie Bennetts suggests that women have been oversold on the idea they must choose between being good workers and being good mothers. Using extensive data, she suggests that women who stop working even temporarily sacrifice much more than financial stability.
A lot of people disliked this book when it came out last year. There were plenty of SAHM’s that thought Bennetts was the anti-Christ. Of course, it makes perfect sense they would be defensive about their choice to opt out of the workforce. I was surprised though when the writer at The New Yorker gave it a tepid review.
Unlike those above, I loved this book for its financial stance and have been sounding the trumpets ever since Bennetts signed my copy and warned that many gay and lesbian parents were falling into the same trap as their traditional counterparts. In the book, Bennetts cautions women:
What I want to do is sound a warning to women who forgo income-producing work in favor of a domestic role predicated on economic dependency. My first goal is to document the long-term dangers of that choice in hopes of persuading these women to reevaluate its costs. My second goal is to reaffirm the immense value of income-producing work that gives women financial autonomy along with innumerable other rewards. In the endless acrimony of the culture wars, those key factors seem to have been largely overlooked, at least in the media and the standard public debate.
I meet more and more gays and lesbians who are opting out of the workforce to stay home with their kids. They cite many of the same reasons that straight mothers use: the high costs of childcare out weighs the income and benefits of working, it’s better for the kids if one of us stays home, my partner’s career is more important (and he/she makes more money).
According to the trade group, the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies, the average cost of infant care is 10.6 percent of household income. Bennetts writes:
Discouraged by such warnings, women often decide to give up their careers, rationalizing that choice with the thought that they would be working only to pay for child care, and that their work would therefore be pointless. But this argument completely fails to take into account the long-term development of any worker’s earnings potential. Your own career is an investment you make in yourself, one that – unless it is interrupted or derailed – will pay dividends throughout your life.
Some benefits are financial, some are intellectual or creative, and others involve different kinds of personal growth. If you devote your life to supporting your husband’s career, all those dividends belong to him – as does the career itself. Ultimately it’s his asset, not yours. This basic fact many not become apparent unless you lose your breadwinner, whether through divorce, illness or death – but the harsh truth is that a dependent wife spends her life enhancing an asset that, in the end, may not even belong to her.
This makes about as much sense as putting millions of dollars’ worth of renovations into a house you don’t even own. Few intelligent people would sink a lot of money into refurbishing a rental, but stay-at-home wives think nothing of subordinating their own financial interests to those of their husbands, blithely assuming that those interests will never diverge.
What spoke to me about this book is how quickly we’ll give up our financial independence in the name of motherhood. Of course, the intent of this review and post is not to start the lesbian mommy wars. Actually, I think the review at Salon.com says it best:
In the end, I’m not sure the book’s bravado will be entirely convincing to all of the women she wants to persuade. It’s deaf to the way a child and family-centered life calls out to a lot of women, and to some men. When I’ve written on these topics before and gotten shrill about the importance of having a career and keeping maternal urges in check, I’ve gotten thoughtful and sometimes persuasive letters from women and a few men who derive more joy from family than from work, who’ve sacrificed to make sure at least one parent is regularly home with their kids, who take the time to make their house a home, not in a competitive or compulsive way, but out of love and longing. I no longer dismiss them as victims of a new feminine mystique.
Still, I’m glad to have “The Feminine Mistake” reminding women to protect their future and that of their kids. In the end, women have to search their hearts, and not merely books, to find the right balance of child rearing, work and home for their own lives.
After reviewing a book on Queercents, I typically raffle it off to those that entertain me in the comments section below. Sorry gang, I’m keeping this one. I want it for our library so if Jeanine ever comes home after a hard day wanting to opt out of the workforce, I can point to it and say, read! Or who knows, maybe it will be me that gets the crazy idea…
I certainly understand that making money isn’t the cure all and I’m just about to find out how hard the balancing act is. After all, I’ll be a WAHM paying for childcare, but still traveling internationally for my job. I write this on the brink of packing for another 7 day trip: London, Paris, Rome. It all sounds so glamorous as a childless career girl. But wow, the reality of motherhood is about to hit our household. And I’ll be turning to Leslie Bennetts’ book as a reminder that financial independence still trumps diaper duty in my Queercents opinion.
So lesbian mommies (and gay daddies too!), what’s your take on this topic? If you’re a stay at home parent, are there any safeguards you can put in place to protect your finances and ability to return to the workforce down the road?