It all started during the 2012 presidential campaign. Ann Romney, reaching out to female voters—especially independents in swing states—publicly commiserated with their angst over job and economic uncertainties. In a terse, staccato tone, Hilary Rosen, Democratic activist, shot back on CNN: As a lifelong stay-at-home mom who “never worked a day in her life,” Ann Romney is the least qualified woman to champion the financial worries of working mothers.
Movers and shakers in high places quickly came to Ann Romney’s defense. President Obama, in one of his “let me be perfectly clear” pontifications, informed Rosen (and her think-alikes) that anyone who fails to grasp that “there’s no tougher job than being a mom…needs to rethink their statement.” Eager to underline the president’s insight, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden weighed in with similar sentiments.
Many thoughtful female bloggers in not-so-high places agreed with the federal hierarchy—the Rosen remark was demeaning, superficial, petty, and unfair. They were eager to steer the national conversation about women and work toward harder questions, moving it from the no-brainer conclusion—“A mother’s work at home is hard and worthwhile”—to substantive questions like, “How does a mom balance work outside the home with work inside the home?” and, “Is there any way to realize the stay-at-home dream of women with moderate incomes?” Against a backdrop of thoughtful questions like these, the Rosen/Romney kerfuffle morphed into a national conversation about a whole set of complex issues.
The second round included a debate about how best to reward women for their work and their motherhood; how best to give those low-to-moderate income women who want to swap their jobs for home-work the opportunity to be stay-at-home moms (SAHMs), and how best to balance job and childrearing for work-outside-of-home moms (WOHMs).
Chris Hayes, MSNBC host and editor-at-large of the left-leaning periodical The Nation, made a comment that would shape much of the debate about mothers and work: Should a mom’s full-time home-work be compensated? He mused,
There’s something fascinating at the core of this [i.e., the colloquy following the Rosen comment]. There’s a huge amount of uncompensated labor in the country by men and woman, mostly women, who stay home and take care of their kids. And there are countries where that labor is compensated by the state. So I would love to have that conversation, if they actually think it is work and they feel it’s work, why isn’t there any wage for that kind of work? Why is that uncompensated?
Wasting no time, Kevin McCullough, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and conservative political pundit, jumped into the fray. First, he argued, research failed to turn up a single country that compensates women for their stay-at-home labor. Second, the only way the US government—gripped as it is in the vice of crippling debt—could subsidize SAHM compensation would be on the already broken backs of US taxpayers. Third, coming up with appropriate criteria regulating SAHM reimbursement would be hopelessly impractical. McCullough elaborates:
Would moms of only one child get the same form of state compensation as the mother of two? Could welfare moms have a dozen and never have to return to work a day in their natural lives? And when does mothering end? When the child is of age? When the child moves out? What if the child leaves at 16, or stays until 30? And would there be health coverage for the mother as a compensated state worker?
Fourth, state repayment for SAHMs is just plain “morally wrong,” McCullough argued. God designed the family unit by (a) bringing a male and female together before children arrive; (b) providing a father whose male musculoskeletal structure is capable of plowing, killing animals, skinning meat, lifting heavy things, and defending wife and children from those who might threaten their well-being; (c) providing a wife who is well-suited for not only gestating, feeding, and emotionally guiding her children to maturity, but also for being CEO of the household. Hence, state compensation for SAHMs is almost always immoral, McCullough concludes, “[b]ecause God already created a preferred tax-payer funded compensation plan for the family. We call them fathers!”
Space doesn’t allow for thorough critiques of the Hayes/McCullough positions on SAHM compensation, but the interjection of a proposal made by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio corrects weaknesses in both arguments.
[Therefore] the Church can and should help modern society by tirelessly insisting that the work of women in the home be recognized and respected by all in its irreplaceable value.… While it must be recognized that women have the same right as men to perform various public functions, society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family. Furthermore, the mentality which honors women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome. This requires that men should truly esteem and love women with total respect for their personal dignity, and that society should create and develop conditions favoring work in the home.
Here, the late pope delineates two forms of possible reimbursement for SAHMs: one laudatory, the other financial. And since McCullough definitely has a point regarding our national fiscal bankruptcy, the Pope has done Americans a favor in suggesting bi-dimensional compensation for full-time mothers. In other words, our national poverty need not deter the US from excelling in laudatory payment of moms.
But the latter, John Paul insists, will require, first and foremost, endemic changes in our society’s image of, and attitudes toward, women and childrearing. We need publically to recognize the import and irreplaceability of mothering. By urging society to embrace the truth of childrearing as an essential dimension of a woman’s genius, the Pope is underscoring what family life through the ages has taught us: the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. There’s no more preeminent force for good in the world than motherhood. Familial vitality constructed around salubrious parenting makes for societal health writ large. No surrogate caregiver could ever love the child more selflessly than his mother, could ever raise that child to become everything he or she is meant to be more aptly than a mother, could ever shape the character of the child in the mold of self-giving more patiently and wisely than a mother. In the second place, laudatory reimbursement of SAHMs requires that we, as a society, publicly acknowledge mothers by lauding them: reimbursing them for the incalculable value of their dedicated childrearing with homage, honor, and respect.
But, you ask, how might we Americans implement laudatory reimbursement? Well, here’s one idea. Perhaps a future First Lady could adopt as her signature project the promotion of the value of maternal (and paternal) childrearing. She could:
— expand the American cultural touchstone of celebrating Mother’s/Father’s Day with events that publicly recognize, in every state, outstanding parents with, say, mother/father-of-the-year awards;
— design webinars (accessible to any mom with a computer) featuring mothering classes that (a) examine the fundamentals of the vocation of parenting, including discussion of why good mothering and stable family life generates a morally and financially healthy state, and (b) provide practical help for perennial maternal challenges: how to handle rebellious and seemingly uncontrollable children; how to effectively co-parent with the father; how to spiritually/morally form children to be virtuous, self-giving persons and upright, dependable citizens; how best to educate children—public, private, or home-schooling; how to help SAHMs juggle a myriad of home-keeping jobs, child rearing, marital relations, and personal development; how to help WOHMs stay sane while balancing their familial/maternal duties with job responsibilities;
— organize maternal support networks that invite mothers to discuss their common problems, concerns, and worries;
— co-sponsor with churches and faith-based organizations ad campaigns like the Proctor & Gamble “Thank You Mom” videos, which honored the work of mothers who raise Olympic athletes; endorse family TV shows and films that raise awareness about the rewards and challenges of family life and raising children;
— educate Americans about the monetary worth of SAHMs; Salary.com and RealSimple.com have broken down the duties of SAHMs (laundress, janitor, driver, cook, facilities manager, psychologist, and CEO of the household) and calculated their monetary worth ($112,962 a year, for a grueling 94.7 hour work week at $22.94 an hour);
— foster the idea that even though we might not, as a nation, be able to pay SAHMs (or stay-at home dads) the monetary salary they deserve, absolutely nothing prevents us from repaying them with our adulation—offering these selfless heroes our deepest thanks, respect, and reverence;
— appoint a committee to discuss the question of government assistance to SAHMs (or dads): Is there any state reimbursement that would be feasible, despite our shaky economy? Not six-figure salaries, certainly, but perhaps more modest, symbolic gestures like tax exemption for commodities purchased for the family, or a boost in current tax credits for couples with children.
A closing thought: When you insert John Paul II’s proposal into our recent national discussion about mothers and work, it’s fascinating to see how, on at least a theoretical level, the debate forged an alliance between strange intellectual bedfellows: social liberals and a Roman Pontiff.