In the early 1990s, when I was a newspaper reporter and a young mother writing about the need for child-care reform in South Carolina, a state legislator said this to me:
“Now Debra-Lynn, don’t you think mommas really ought to be home taking care of those babies?”
I was reminded of this kind of mindset recently when an all-male TV news panel, responding to a new study about an increase in females as primary breadwinners, said pretty much the same thing.
“This is further proof of society dissolving around us,” Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs commented about last week’s Pew Research Center report, which said that mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners in 40 percent of all U.S. households that include children.
Commentator Juan Williams went on to blame female breadwinners for the disintegration of marriage as an institution. And fellow panelist Erik Erickson said we should all know by now that in the American family, “the male typically is the dominant role.”
Call me progressive. But just because we have yet to completely figure out Internet copyright laws or when it’s socially proper to text, doesn’t mean we should call for a return to landlines, hard-copy encyclopedias and library card catalogues.
It’s the same with mothers in the workforce.
Indeed, I thought the question in the year 2013, when 60 percent of college classrooms are occupied by women, when the majority of the workforce is occupied by women, when most managers are female, isn’t whether working mothers should be supported by U.S. society, but how. The question is no longer what society should be taking from American women, but what they should be taking for themselves.
Apparently I am as naive as I am progressive.
My first thought, when I saw those statistics, was “Bravo.”
I imagined a lineup of forward-thinking families, one in which men and women negotiate and share responsibilities. Whoever is happier and/or performs better at each job is the one who does it.
As I read further in the report, I saw that two-thirds of the breadwinning women mentioned in the Pew study are single mothers with children waiting for them when they get off work. There would be no negotiating in those homes.
Even if she has a man at home, I further realized, many 60-hour-a-week professional women still come home to the bulk of the cupcake-making, casserole-baking, midnight-waking.
Some of this superheroine behavior is of our own doing; many women don’t know how, or don’t think they should, ask for help for those tasks they watched their mothers do.
Some of this behavior is because the very men with whom we share our lives are no less patriarchal and/or stuck in the past than the male journalists and policy makers mentioned above.
Indeed, I once heard a husband, a friend of mine who chooses to work part time, tell his wife in the year 2013 that he doesn’t wash dishes or make beds while she’s away at her full-time job, because housework is “women’s work.”
I know we women have work to do on behalf of our own causes.
Meanwhile, if I could, I would have a word with the members of that panel who so blatantly, and with zero personal experience as an employed female mother, pointed at working mothers for fatally wounding the American family and the institution of marriage.
I would mention a thing or two about the men who abandon their families, leaving single mothers to take on the work they so disdain, and then some. I would remind them of the hangers-on and underachievers among their ilk who stick around but have no interest in contributing.
I would also remind them there are all kinds of ways to disintegrate a family.
One is by running a woman into the ground.