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Choice and Equality for Mothers - and Fathers

June 2, 2013
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Stephanie Coontz's opinion column in The New York Times ("The Triumph of the Working Mother," 6/1/13) is disappointing and misleading. Coontz perpetuates the false dichotomy of "working" v. "at-home mothers," contradicts her own writing from just two years ago, and ignores evidence published in scholarly journals. And she concludes by calling for better policies for only some families - working families.

The first problem with Coontz' column is her assumption that there are two types of mothers - working and at-home:

As the founders of Family and Home Network pointed out 30 years ago, mothers cannot simply be divided into two categories--working and at-home. The statistics most often cited, from the U.S. Department of Labor, include all mothers with children under the age of 18. The "working" category includes: mothers who are employed part-time even just a few hours per week, those who care for other children as well as their own as family child care providers, those working without pay at least 15 hours/week on a "family operated enterprise," those on maternity leave, and others.

In the Journal of Marriage and Family in February 2005. Authors Kathryn Hynes and Marin Clarkberg of Cornell University conducted a complex analysis of data on more than 2400 women. They explain the difference between measuring employment transitions at particular points in time and seeking to understand employment trajectory over a period of time. Hynes and Clarkberg note: “scholars frequently imply that at the first birth, women divide themselves into two groups: workers and homemakers.” And they conclude, “Women’s employment patterns are characterized by significant amounts of change over the life course.”

Second - on mothers' well-being Coontz states, without citing a source:

"Ms. Friedan wins on the question of whether working improves women’s well-being. At all income levels, stay-at-home mothers report more sadness, anger, and episodes of diagnosed depression than their employed counterparts."

Yet in 2011, Coontz wrote in The New York Times ("When we Hated Mom" 5/7/11):

" a new Council on Contemporary Families briefing paper - Working Mothers, Stay-at-home Mothers, and Depression Risk - the sociologists Margaret Usdansky and Rachel A. Gordon report that among mothers of young children, those who were not working and preferred not to have a job had a relatively low risk of depression — about as low as mothers who chose to work and were able to attain high-quality jobs.

"Mothers who want to work outside the home but instead are full-time homemakers, however, have a higher risk of depression.  This is a significant group: in 2000, 40 percent of full-time homemakers said they would prefer to be working at a paid job. So telling women who want to work that they or their children will be better off if they stay home is a mistake. Maternal depression is well known as being harmful to children’s development.

"These findings suggest that it is time to stop arguing over who has things worse or who does things better, stay-at-home mothers or employed mothers. Instead, we should pay attention to women’s preferences and options."

The briefing paper by Usdansky and Gordon is published on the website of the Council on Contemporary Families, of which Coontz is co-Chair. Usdansky and Gordon write:

"The study is also important because it reveals the inaccuracies of arguments that all women should work for pay or that all women should stay at home. It's not as simple as these one-size-fits-all arguments suggest. The actual situation, desire, and job quality all matter. Although our study could not measure why women chose to work for pay or not, it is clearly important for mothers of young children to consider their own desires when deciding whether to seek a job."

Furthermore, the research conducted by Usdansky and Gordon, along with Xue Wang and Anna Gluzman, was published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, March 2012, Volume 33, Issue 1, and in the abstract the authors state:

"...non-employed mothers have elevated depression levels only if they desire employment. Our results demonstrate that neither employment nor non-employment is best for all mothers of young children; rather mental health depends on mothers’ employment preferences and, when they do work for pay, job quality."

Third, Coontz calls for better family policies for only some families -- working families -- ignoring principles of equality and choice as well as her own advice - "pay attention to women's preferences and options."

Family and Home Network's Campaign for Inclusive Family Policies calls for family policies that promote equality and choice for mothers and fathers, policies that support families regardless of the ways in which parents meet their income-earning and caregiving responsiblities.

Family and Home Network will contact the Board of Directors of the Council on Contemporary Families and ask them to support the Campaign for Inclusive Family Policies. 

Wednesday 6-5-13 update: I sent an email to Stephanie Coontz, expressing my dismay about her column, and asking her to endorse FAHN's Campaign for Inclusive Family Policies. I received a reply very quickly, Dr. Coontz says, in part, "I didn't choose the headline and found it very dismaying, because if you read the piece carefully you'll see I was just making the argument that work CAN be good for women." And she added that she will be writing again but is currently on deadline with other projects. She adds that the headline "implied a competition between employed and non-employed parents, all of whom do vital WORK."

My take on this: I DID read Coontz's piece carefully, and the problem is not just with the headline chosen by editors. We'll see what happens next. It's fine to express support for the WORK of employed and non-employed parents -- but putting that support into policy means economic support for ALL parents, whether they care for their child(ren) themselves or pay others to provide care.  More later... I have to go care for my grandsons now!