Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The One About Mothers Who Stay Home

Another entry in the Mommy Wars. Poor Little Rich Women in this week's New York Times. This time the target is wealthy women on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who mostly don't work and thus provide little societal value save fodder for mindless entertainment on Bravo. So a tiny sub-set of stay-at-home moms. The author, a cultural anthropologist, reports she didn't expect the neighborhood to be so different when she moved her family to the the Upper East Side from The Village. She's turned her social observations into a new book, Primates of Park Avenue.

The article landed atop the Most Emailed List yesterday. More than a few friends forwarded it to me, lamenting it's still open season on mothers, granted in this case, privileged ones. So I decided to respond. Or maybe it was the comparison of SAHMs to female birds and chimps that sent me over the edge. Or maybe it was the report that the !Kung women of Africa - who clearly can choose among many fulfilling alternative lifestyle choices - still forage for roots and tubers. "If you don't bring home tubers and roots, your power is diminished in your marriage. And in the world." Such global economic forces, those hunter-gatherers. As if the !Kung women fly to Davos on their private jets.

As a social psychologist married to a finance guy, yes, it happens from time to time and yes we used to live in NYC. I too have keenly observed the phenomenon of affluent motherhood. Sometimes it provides a good laugh or a quiet get a life! at school meetings or soccer matches. I have wished at  times that some mothers would focus less on their children. I have quickly calculated how many kids could be vaccinated on the other side of world for the price of that purse or party. But I haven't been taking notes around the playground or bouncy castle, though, so don't expect a book. Here's what I have noted. A number of factors either prevent women from working outside the home or make it an undesirable or impractical option. Some do not involve padding a kid's future college application.

I've said this before, but for all the talk about "intensive" parenting and chastising women for spending too much trying to honing their children's list of achievements, there is precious little evidence and not enough discussion of this or other factors that play a role in a mother's desire to pursue paid employment, or the related obstacles. Nor is there much evidence this "intensive" or "hyper parenting" is a pervasive trend instead of one limited to more affluent, highly educated households. Where is all the evidence? Why don't we look at the complex socio-cultural factors that have given rise to this much-hyped hyper parenting style? Why is it all the fault of mothers? Why have so few actually bothered to ask mothers about their motivations? I wonder if Ms. Martin asked her Park Avenue friends and acquaintances.

In any event I'm sure the Mom Wars will continue. It's so easy to get pulled into it. It's harder to figure out how to provide meaningful career opportunities to mothers, regardless of education, income, zip code or years out of the paid work force. To say nothing of good, affordable and reliable daycare. I've paid out more in child care over the years than my meager academic/teaching/writing compensations could have ever covered. How absurd but hardly an uncommon issue. I can't imagine this is a problem for the Park Avenue set who, if The Nanny Diaries is to be believed, have legions of nannies regardless if they work or move from lunch to manicure to pilates. The bigger conversation about meaningful employment and quality child care doesn't smoothly lend itself  to dramatic op-eds or popular books. I totally agree, it's more fun reading about women who get bonuses for being well-toned, stay-at-home trophy moms.

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