Mother's Day approaches, and children are decorating cards with ribbons and lace and wrapping boxes of chocolates. Just how we celebrate depends on the length of our memories. Those closest to adolescence recall the anger of rebellion, when we were sure we knew more than our mothers. The older we get, the wiser our mothers become.
When we become mothers ourselves, we suddenly hear her voice in our own, in the familiar things we say to our children: “I’ll count to three,” or “You’re wearing that?” or “No, you don’t look fat.” Mothers of men who died on both sides in the Civil War organized a first day to honor mothers as a way to inspire the reuniting of North and South, but it was not celebrated as an official holiday until it was recognized in West Virginia in 1908. Other states quickly followed, and President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the holiday in 1914, six years before women got the vote.
We’ve marched a long way since then. We mock the second Sunday in May for its sentimentality and commercialization, but when a mother’s voice is stilled, her sons and daughters grieve that the full understanding of a mother’s wisdom arrived too late to thank her for it.
So it’s a good day for sentiment, and it’s a good day for hardheaded realism, too. The way parents share responsibility has changed over the past five decades. The Pew Research Center confirms what most of us know: Dad is doing more housework, but not nearly as much as Mom. Both share the care of children, but Mom does more.
More dads than moms work full time. This research supports the findings of economists June and Dave O’Neill, who write in their new book, “The Declining Importance of Race and Gender in the Labor Market,” that the gender gap in wages is related to different choices women make, not discrimination. Mothers are “more likely to work part-time, to take more career breaks than men, to accumulate fewer years of continuous work experience,” and childless women “who never marry earn more than married women and as much as similarly situated men.”
Fathers place more importance on high-paying jobs, and women want flexible schedules. In the Pew survey, only 23 percent of married mothers say they would like to work full time, an attitude unchanged since 2007.
In the life-is-not-fair department, feminist fury was unleashed against Marissa Mayer when the CEO of Yahoo built a nursery in her office for her newborn but required mothers who work for her to come into the office to share the collaborative team dynamic. Bottom lines are not about changing diapers. The controversy loudly acknowledged the dilemma of working mothers, which has not entered the consciousness of working fathers. Few men are signing up for the suggestion that they take the title of “feminist housedude.”
Feminism is fading because women in their prime earning years are distracted by the urge to procreate, and after that to supervise the upbringing of their children. Lisa Miller argues in New York magazine that educated, married mothers “far from the Bible Belt’s conservative territories, in blue state cities and suburbs” are giving up sitting around the kitchen table with their friends railing about glass ceilings and not having it all: “They are too busy mining their grandmothers’ old-fashioned lives for values they can appropriate like heirlooms they wear proudly as their own.” They see domesticity as a career, cameos in a digital age.
Retro moms draw attention to what Betty Friedan, the godmother of modern feminism, missed: that satisfied full-time mothers liked their lives of domesticity and didn’t want to trade them for the dissatisfactions of the workaday grind. This is not a retreat but an “active awakening.” They want to enjoy the division of labor in a marriage, with the man bringing home the money for the bread. If Mom doesn’t bake the bread, the bakery has lots of healthy choices. More women, even liberal women, are home-schooling their children. The number of home-schoolers has grown by 10 percent over the past year in New York City.
Retro mothers know they are privileged, and not only because of what their husbands earn. Most of these “retro families” have incomes of $100,000 a year or more, but the women measure their lives in long-range dividends. Kelly Makino, 33, a New York mother of two children, ages 2 and 5, considers herself a feminist and a “flaming liberal” who relishes the power she wields from home: “I know this investment in my family will be paid back when the time is ripe.”
No doubt. Happy Mother's Day.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.