Headlines in the supermarket checkout aisles remind shoppers there’s a struggle in the world today. The battle isn’t over the Gaza Strip or Fallujah, but motherhood.
The term “Mommy Wars” once referred to the slugfest between stay-at-home moms and working mothers — two constituencies whose political interests seemed at odds.
Today, the generals on both sides seem to believe all the troops are getting a raw deal. Stay-at-home moms confront a lack of respect. Working moms are burdened with guilt for not spending enough time with their children. Yet sadly, this mutual recognition that the combatants’ interests don’t necessarily conflict hasn’t prompted a cease-fire.
Instead, women’s advocates have turned their arsenal on a series of villains — corporate America, the media, and men — they believe contribute to the structure making life so difficult for moms. A typical women’s magazine article on the challenges faced by mothers laments inflexible workplaces, the lack of affordable child care, and how men still shirk much child-rearing responsibility. The media themselves are to blame, too, for offering hopelessly idealized images of motherhood, making both working and stay-at-home moms feel inadequate.
But what solutions do women’s groups offer? Government is often trumpeted as mom’s potential savior. Many suggest a proper mix of programs and policies can relieve moms.
Yet like the miracle diets and anti-wrinkle potions filling the back of Cosmopolitan magazine, solutions that rely on Washington are likely to disappoint. Government interventions, no matter how well intended, usually backfire on those they are meant to help. And they can exacerbate tension between stay-at-home and working mothers by favoring one over the other.
Consider the agenda of the advocacy group “Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights” or MOTHERS, founded by renowned feminist Naomi Wolf and Ann Crittenden. Among their demands is a “Social Security credit” for stay-at-home moms.
This would require bureaucrats to assign a value or “wage” for the work of raising a child — hardly an uncontroversial judgment — that eventually would determine how much Social Security pays at retirement. At first blush, this sounds almost sensible: Clearly, there is value in the work of stay-at-home moms. Yet government rewarding stay-at-home-moms carries costs and is especially unfair to working women.
Working moms surrender more than $1 in $10 to Social Security taxes. So a woman earning the same as a stay-at-home mom’s government-mandated wage would pay thousands of dollars in taxes for no additional Social Security benefit.
Married working women already face a high marginal tax rate because they are taxed in their husband’s highest bracket. In addition, these women typically face child-care costs. This proposal would create another disincentive for women to work. In effect, government would take a side in the mommy wars.
Of course, women’s advocates also push many proposals that favor working moms. Government-funded day care, for example, is a favorite of groups like the National Organization for Women. Yet while the government can make day care seem “free” to working parents, it isn’t free to taxpayers.
Passing on those costs means families who have one spouse at home will have a tougher time making ends meet. Stay-at-home-moms’ service would be devalued since they could be replaced by the “free” substitute: government day-care centers. This proposal would push stay-at-home moms to seek formal employment, and amounts to the government again taking a side in the mommy wars.
Instead of pushing programs that favor a particular lifestyle, government should be neutral and focus on facilitating flexibility for everyone. Lower taxes and spending cuts, for example, would reduce the fiscal burden on all families.
Families with a parent at home could stretch one income further, and working women would have larger incomes to purchase child care. Paring back costly regulations would allow businesses to hire new employees and offer more flexible work arrangements — something that may appeal both to women already working and to some homebound moms who may enjoy part-time jobs.
Women’s groups peddle a comforting illusion when they suggest government can settle the mommy wars. Yet it is an illusion. The real source of this conflict is inside each individual woman who feels torn between children and career. That is not a struggle government can resolve.
The best government can do is to remain neutral and let women make their own decisions. Allowing women to follow their own hearts is the only way all moms can win this war.
Director of policy
Independent Women’s Forum.