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An Economy That Gives Mothers a Choice

As Mothers’ Day approaches, I recall inadvertently insulting my Mom decades ago, trying to defend a girlfriend’s career goals by criticizing the lack of opportunities for women who stayed home. She said, “I chose to be a housewife and raise you boys.” She did (and did well), but it helped that Dad made decent wages as a lineman. Some women don’t have such choices.

As much progress that’s happened – women for decades were limited by cultural, educational and even legal barriers and were limited to teaching, nursing and a few other occupations if they chose to work outside the home – US wages fell, so families needed more than one income.

Some families don’t financially need both parents to work. That’s maybe what Democratic activist Hilary Rosen tried to say when she blurted out that Ann Romney never worked “a day in her life.” She stayed home and worked to raise kids and maintain a home – without compensation or a need for the second income.

Ann Romney said, “We need to respect choices that women make.”

Raising kids is one of the most important jobs anyone can do, but choices remain slim.

Rosen apologized; First Lady Michelle Obama defended Ann Romney; and the President said, “There's no tougher job than being a mom.” But it's better to have choices: full-time, part-time or stay-at-home work. Most mothers wish they had the choice of staying at home or going to work outside the home, but few do.

Despite rhetoric about “family values,” Republican and Democratic politicians alike dismiss parenting as a job. In fact, Ann’s husband Mitt in January publicly proposed to a New Hampshire rally that moms who receive government aid should be compelled to get a job outside the home or lose their benefits, saying, “I want those individuals to have the dignity of work.” (Huh.)

The Families and Work Institute says that in 1974, 47% of women with children under 18 participated in the labor force; now it’s more than 70%. Such participation has resulted in greater potential conflicts between work and family, according to a study by the University of Minnesota and the SUNY Downstate Medical Center examining associations between work-family conflict and women's health after childbirth. Women who reported a lot of job spillover to home had mental health scores worse than women who reported less spillover. Women with medium and high levels of home spillover to jobs also reported worse mental health compared to those with low spillover.

The study also shows that women experienced job spillover into the home more often than home spillover into work; no ties were found between job spillover into the home and physical health; and a positive tie was found between women’s mental health scores and support from co-workers and from family about how women “balanced both work and family.”

Moms in poverty have it worse, according to Urban Institute researchers Austin Nichols and Pamela Loprest, who found that one in four low-income single mothers nationwide – about 1.5 million of them – are jobless and without cash aid. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says the percentage of the population working or looking for work for all mothers with children under 18 was 70.8% in 2010 and it’s going up. Something’s got to give. Many stay-at-home moms are going to want work outside the home, but the cost of child care is too high. Further, some working women would like to stay home, but they can't without sacrificing income their households need.

We need an economy where mothers can choose what’s best for their family.

The BLS on April 17 reported that women who work full time had median weekly earnings 82.2% of what men make. That means that the working woman lost $10,784 last year to that gap, according to the National Women’s Law Center, whose co-president Marcia Greenberger told Press Associates., “When … families are relying increasingly on women’s wages, it’s especially critical to end the pay gap for women. Equal pay is not an abstract principle for women and their families. It’s key to their survival.”

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis agreed, adding, “In almost two-thirds of families led by single mothers or two parents, mothers are either the primary or co-breadwinner.

“Pay equity is not simply a question of fairness,” she added. “It is an economic imperative with serious implications not just for women, but for their families, their communities and our nation.”

Paying for working at home seems remote at a time when raising the minimum wage isn’t even debated. But government could ensure equal pay, provide maternity leave and child-care options, and reform labor law to let mothers and all workers unionize if they choose.

Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio