Housework doesn’t pay. ’Paid work gives you money, you need money to support your kids. What’s complicated about that?’
Housework doesn’t pay. ’Paid work gives you money, you need money to support your kids. What’s complicated about that?’
LESLIE BENNETTS, AUTHOR OF ‘THE FEMININE MISTAKE,’ TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT WOMEN’S RISKS, ASSETS AND DELUSIONS
Q You’ve ignited a firestorm by saying it’s a mistake for mothers to stay home with their kids because it renders them economically dependent on men. And yet, stay-at-home moms are blogging all over the place that it’s the best decision they’ve ever made. Are they just deluded?
A: I found in my own interviewing something that is backed up by a lot of social science research: women do not make these decisions knowing a lot of the information they really should know in order to make informed choices. The consequences only catch up with them later, and they’re blindsided by a lot of very difficult challenges that they didn’t anticipate. It’s later on that they say, “Oh my God, I made such a mistake, why didn’t anybody tell me this information?” So no, they’re not deluded, but there is an information gap.
Q: Well, why is it a mistake to stay home with the kids?
A: It’s a mistake for women to drop out of the labour force thinking that they can come back in when their kids are older, because the barriers are extraordinary. They will encounter tremendous ageism, sexism, overt discrimination against mothers, and employers are very negative about women who have been out of the labour force for any length of time. Women also don’t seem to realize that they lose nearly 40 per cent of their earning power when they take a time out as short as three years or less. But the larger question is the
general risks of life: the divorce rate is 50 per cent, and the average age of widowhood in America is 55. Women are living to be in their 80s and 90s, and by the time women are 60 years old, two-thirds of them are without partners. And then there’s unemployment. It’s a very volatile and insecure labour market, so even if your husband’s a wonderful guy and he doesn’t get sick and he doesn’t die, he can lose his job. When you add up all the risk factors, it becomes clear that it’s not a small minority of women who are going to have these problems—the majority of women over the course of their lifetimes are going to end up on the wrong side of the odds. It just takes years for all of this to play out, and women tend to be focused very much on the moment and on immediate needs rather than considering the questions in terms of the long run.
Q: Is there anything at all to recommend staying at home?
A: Well, I wouldn’t take such a high-risk gamble with my children’s lives. Different people have different appetites for risk. I wouldn’t go climb Mount Everest because I know that one out of the eight people who do that die. In the case of stay-at-home moms, two-thirds to three-quarters of them will probably end up having really serious challenges. A parent’s first obligation is to provide food and shelter for their children, and if a mother does not maintain the ability to do that, I would question whether she’s really being a responsible parent.
Q: One of your arguments is that working
moms have a fuller life, that it’s a way to express your individuality and grow as a person.
A: Freud and the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson both defined work and love as the two essential components of a mature, healthy adult life, and I think for many of us, work is intellectually challenging and permits us to keep on growing and finding new challenges and new rewards in ways that are not necessarily possible if you stay home. If other people don’t want those kinds of challenges, that’s fine with me, I just hope that they have made a plan about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to support their children if something happens to [their] breadwinner. These days, it takes two incomes to provide the kind of middle-class lifestyle that one income was able to provide a generation or two ago, so families that rely on a single breadwinner are very vulnerable.
Q: I can already see the letters to the editor. Stay-at-home moms are going to write, “But this is work.”
A: It’s tons of work to run a household. I run a household, I’ve made a homemade dinner for my children every night for the last 18 years. But you don’t get paid for it. So I’m sorry, when the rent cheque comes due, or the grocery bill has to be paid, it doesn’t matter that you worked hard doing housework. You can’t pay it if you don’t have an income ! And if you were depending on a man, and he left or just died, and you haven’t thought through how you’re going to provide for your kids, it doesn’t matter how much
housework you did. I don’t understand why there’s this confusion. Paid work gives you money, you need money to support your kids—what’s complicated about that? If [they’re] not getting paid, women end up with fewer pensions, fewer savings, and women end up in poverty at twice the rate of men. Another thing that’s important to note is that four out of five of the women who end up in poverty didn’t start out poor. These are people who had comfortable lives, then they lost their breadwinner, and hadn’t planned for their own futures, and ended up poor.
Q: You say that a lot of women don’t so much opt out of work as seize the excuse of having kids and run with it, to get away from jobs they were disillusioned with. Why do women give up so easily?
A Girls grow up thinking on some level, even if they’re not conscious of it, that you’re going to meet Prince Charming and you’re going to live happily forever after and he’s going to take care of you. And so what you see is that when young men hit roadblocks in their careers, they figure out a way to go around them or over them. They persevere. Whereas girls just shrug and say, “Well, I didn’t really want to do this anyway, and I can go home and be supported by my husband.” This is not a viable long-term strategy for life in the 21st century. As the experts I quoted in my book put it, marriage is an economic partnership—the problem is that women assume nearly all the economic risk. So what you see for example after divorce is that women’s standard of living goes down by 38 per cent and men’s goes up by 26 per cent. The man’s just walked out the door with the family’s major asset, which is his career, his earning power. A lot of women don’t know that one of the results of the equality revolution of the last 30 years is that the courts are saying to women, “Well, you have an education, so we’ll give you a couple of years of rehabilitative alimony, and then you’re on your own.” And the woman is just thunderstruck, she says, “Wait a minute, I’ve been out of the workforce for 18 years, I just sent out a hundred resumés and I can’t get one job interview, what do you mean I’m on my own? I can’t support myself!”
Q: The mothers you interviewed were really well-educated, but the stay-at-homes came off like ninnies who hadn’t thought of any of this. Why not?
A: These are women who wouldn’t think of having a child without baby-proofing their houses and researching which is the best stroller to buy, and yet they seem unable even to think about how they’re going to pay for food and shelter if something happens to
their husbands. I think there’s a lot of denial around the subject of men and marriage. It’s like the promise is more real than the reality, so you will talk to women who say, “Yes, all my friends are getting divorced, but nothing bad will ever happen to me.” Well, that’s just not a prudent way to be a grown-up if you have children depending on you.
Q: One of the interesting things in the blogosphere, maybe not in real life, is this idea that the “Mommy Wars” have been harmful, that women who stay home should not judge women who work outside the home, and vice versa, that no one should be calling anyone’s life choices a mistake. Why do you think it’s okay?
A: It’s unfair to say that I’m calling people’s life choices a mistake as if this were a qualitative judgment. It’s a question of facing the facts. If I had done investigative reporting and found out that there’s some kind of poison in their water supply that’s going to make their children sick, I think women would want to know about it, they’d probably agitate to solve the problem. And yet when it comes to questions of a family’s finances, all the financial planners and investment people that I talked to said it’s really difficult to get women to step up to the plate. Women will say things like, “Oh, my husband has a life insurance policy, so if something happens to him, we’ll be okay.” They haven’t really sat down to do the math, and haven’t thought through the fact that the husband’s life insurance policy would carry the family for three or four years; if they’re 40 years old, they may live for another 50 years! I’m not saying that their lives are a mistake, I’m saying that it’s a mistake to depend on a man to support you. If this is your life plan, it probably won’t work out.
Q: Obviously working-class women and single moms have never had the luxury of opting out of the workforce, and quite a few middle-class moms don’t either.
A: Many people think this is just an elite phenomenon that only is relevant to privileged women. The Wall Street Journal reported a couple of months ago that the new data shows this is occurring at all socio-economic levels. It becomes an aspirational model, and it’s also a question of women having been brainwashed into believing this is necessary for their children to turn out well, which it’s not.
Q: Do you think, and does social science show, that kids are better off in any way when their mothers stay home?
A: No. Social scientists have been studying the children of working mothers and the children of stay-at-home moms for more than 40 years, trying to prove that one group does better than the other, and they’ve completely failed to show any evidence to suggest that it’s preferable to have stay-at-home mothers. That’s not what determines whether children
turn out well. When I say things like that, women then come back at me and say, “Well, you’re just saying we should all warehouse our children in substandard daycare.” Child care of all kinds has been so demonized.
Q: But the reality is it’s very hard to find affordable, accessible, high-quality child care.
A: I think that’s absolutely true, it’s a national disgrace. This is not a women’s issue, it’s not a woman’s problem. Fathers should be doing a lot more to be partners as parents, and the government should be doing more, and corporations should be doing more to develop family-friendly policies. But the way things are right now, it is not true that the children of working mothers do worse than the children of stay-at-home mothers.
Q: Men in your book are either dumping
their wives, dying on them, or losing their jobs— it’s one depressing example after another.
A: Go out there and try interviewing women about what happens to them, the stories of women’s lives are harrowing. And yet we still keep on thinking these are the exceptions to the rule. They’re not the exceptions to the rule. They’re the norm. It does not help women or their kids to be wildly unrealistic. I’m not saying all men are scoundrels, but enough of them are, and women are shocked and surprised by the consequences often enough that I would think that you should consider it as being within the realm of possibility. M
ON THE WEB: For exclusive audio, video and interview podcasts, visit: www.macleans.ca/mediaroom
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.