Last week Tamara Straus’s article “What Stalled the Gender Revolution? Child Care That Costs More Than College Tuition” quickly made the rounds on social media, prompting a chorus of frustrated sighs. My experience is probably similar to that of a lot of middle-class women: Before kids, I had a job at which I made good-but-not-great money. It was with a company that paid its employees as contractors, so there was no health insurance or maternity leave. When the recession hit, just as I got pregnant with my first child, the work dried up. Unemployment benefits weren’t an option, and I couldn’t find a job that would pay enough to cover child care for one and then two children. Finally, I was uneasy with the child care options available to me—primarily women who were undocumented immigrants with no formal training in early childhood education, or underpaid day care workers logging inhumane hours.
Nonetheless, I always framed staying home as a choice, to myself and anyone who asked. “Those early years are so precious.” “I have the rest of my life to work…” Et cetera. And most of my stay-at-home friends used the same language. But once in a while, one of us would mention that we would have maybe liked to work some—maybe two to four days a week—if we could have found such jobs. Or that maybe we would even have liked to work full time, but not 70-hour weeks, and also, who can swing $40,000 a year for child care that might be sub-par or even dangerous? Or that our jobs had offered a maternity leave of 12 weeks, and we couldn’t bear to leave a three-month-old in day care.
And so, we “chose” to quit.
Framing this as a choice is less painful than admitting that you’re in a no-win situation.
The idea of choice pervades discussions of family-friendly policies. Read the comments on any article about the difficulty of working and paying for child care and someone will pipe up early with “Children are a choice—why should the rest of us pay for your day care? You don’t pay for my dog kennel!” Which makes me wonder: If only rich people are allowed to breed, who will wipe the noses of the little Sun Kings when the servant class dies out? Are parents going to, say, place an ad in Town and Country?
Another example of choice: the idea that women choose to go into the lower-paid, care-work professions, choose to take more flexible jobs to be available for their families, and choose to leave the workforce when the strain of taking another unpaid sick day becomes too much. (For which their colleagues will complain about having to “pick up the slack,” just as they will complain about picking up the slack for women on maternity leave.)
Framing this mess as a choice is less painful than admitting that you’re in a no-win situation, and that despite your education, your hard work, your general moxie, you, too, could not make “work-life balance” work. You are poking around on Pinterest for lunchbox art installations because you want to, not because writing your dissertation became an impractical hobby after having a kid. (And I say this as someone who likes lunch ideas as much as anyone. I just don’t want lunch ideas to be my full-time job.)
In fact, two researchers, Nicole M. Stephens at the Kellogg School of Management and Cynthia S. Levine at Northwestern, have demonstrated that this narrative of choice obscures the structural obstacles that parents, particularly women, face in caring for children while remaining in the workforce. The researchers presented a group of stay-at-home mothers with a set of statistics, in four fields, that demonstrated gender inequality. The women who framed their personal current situation as a deliberate choice were much less likely to recognize the discrimination and barriers to equality that the statistics demonstrated than the women who didn’t.
In a second study, the researchers exposed a group of undergraduates to a subtle message about choice, a poster that read “Choosing to Leave: Women’s Experiences Away from the Workforce” versus a poster with a more neutral message, like “Women at Home: Experiences Away from the Workforce.” The students who’d seen the first poster were more likely to state that gender inequality no longer exists and that men and women have equal opportunities in the working world. (Another interesting study on choice and gender inequality: A sociologist at Appalachian State University has shown that both women and men perpetuate traditional courtship rituals—the man asking out the woman, etc.—and that those roles continue in marriage. The participants in that study also framed their traditional gender roles as personal preferences.)
The narrative of choice is convenient—it feels empowering.
But really, our only choice was exactly when to say “I quit” when the pressures of working, paying for child care, and juggling sick days and holidays became too much to bear. In my case, saying I chose to stay home ignores 35 years of cultural shunting towards a particular role: My husband was more established in his career when we married, and he’d considered “being a good provider” when choosing a career and job. I’d considered “flexibility and being at home on snow days” when selecting mine. He played engineering games as a child; I played dress-up. He entered an engineering field and I entered an artistic one. We’ve both absorbed messages about women being caretakers and men being breadwinners. My employer refused to hire salaried employees and provide family-friendly benefits because no one was forcing him to. The country doesn’t seem to have the political will to provide subsidized child care or mandate a year of parental leave. These inexorable downward pressures squeeze a good number of women out of the workforce.
The narrative of choice is convenient—it feels empowering to women who might otherwise feel trapped between a day care bill and no paycheck at all. And it takes the heat off employers to provide decent benefits and off politicians to write legislation that would mandate them. But pretending that everyone has infinite options blinds us to parents’ actual situations and dulls our empathy for those who are struggling. After all, if a woman has a kid and isn’t married and works for Starbucks, well, maybe she should have made different choices.
Until we recognize that children are inevitable, someone’s got to take care of them, and that the whole country is better off if we have family-friendly policies, our only choice is going to be between two evils.