Monday, April 19, 2010

Is everything about money?

Despite the very determined, argumentative bent of my initial post, I can't say that the debate about working moms v. stay-at-home moms is one sided. I also recognize that this a longstanding debate that's rife with influence: philosophical debate from various feminist movements, cultural shifts in attitudes about men's roles, and--most recently--the recession.

Hopefully it is just the panicked rhetoric of economic stability filling the air and not a more sustained feature, but everything I read about working moms is focused on money. Literally, everything.

They fall into different camps:

1) Moms Who Must Work:
This view on the working mother seems to be sympathetic. Of course, the general underlying principle maintains, any one who is capable would choose to be at home, but many of us must work to make ends meet. The tips and advice in these articles center on how a mom can deal with the guilt she feels and recognize that she is doing all she can for her child.

2) The Cost of Staying At Home:
This article focuses on the amount of money "lost" by a mother who chooses to stay at home. This includes the paychecks they don't receive while staying at home, but also forfeited retirement plans and other benefits like health insurance. All in all, "Economists say that the stay-at-home parent who relinquishes a career may lose about $1 million over the years."
This article ends with the realistic (though, to me, depressing) advice to focus on prenups and consider the financial vulnerability of being a procreating woman.

3) The Cost of the Mommy-Track:
In this well-written, thoughtful article, Angie Kim discusses the concept of the mommy track. Among her points made is a description of her mother's reaction to the fact that she, after years of education (including law school), had become a stay at home mom:
At the end of the reunion evening, my classmates and I compared notes and discovered that only one woman (of the 30 or so in attendance) was still a full-time practicing attorney. "Is our whole class on the mommy track?" I wondered, a little relieved.

When I told my mom about the reunion, she had a different question: "I guess we're not the only ones who wasted a hundred thousand dollars in tuition, then?" Although her comment was punctuated by a good-natured chuckle, I couldn't laugh it off. She and my dad had moved to Baltimore from Korea, working 16-hour days in a tiny, vaultlike grocery store protected by bullet-proof glass, skimping and saving for my tuition. Had I squandered my parents' years of sacrifice?

Now, I get it. Money is important. It buys nice things like air conditioning, clothes, houses, and food. I want to be paid for the work that I do, and I like the stability that those payments bring me. But I am not reducible to a dollar amount and neither is the work that I do. If it was simply a question of how much monetary worth I would have if I stayed at home, I wouldn't care.

I want to work because it is fulfilling, mentally engaging, and interesting. I want to work because work lets me contribute to society. I want to work selfishly and altruistically, but money is only a tiny subset of that dynamic. Can't we talk about some of the other stuff? Please?

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