House Work

The Myth of the Stay-at-Home-Mommy Job

Memo to Ann Romney: Motherhood is hard work, but it’s not a career, argues Leslie Bennetts.

04.13.12 6:50 PM ET

When it comes to the Mommy Wars, the only thing that’s more predictable than overwrought emotion and disingenuous indignation is the fact that everyone always misses the point: it’s all about the money, honey.

Each time the subject of working mothers resurfaces, the discussion instantly focuses on the relative merits and demerits of women’s personal choices, usually considered in comparison with each other so that one “side” in a bogus war can be pitted against the other “side.” But whether the combatants are the politicians or the pundits or the seething, sniping mothers who feel undervalued and insulted whether they stay home or work for pay, nobody talks about the crucial economic issues underlying the whole ridiculous debate.

The manufactured controversy over Ann Romney’s status as a stay-at-home mother of five followed the usual blueprint, abetted by the dizzying speed with which social media and a 24/7 news cycle now enable political antagonists to capitalize on the slightest misstep by anyone in front of a microphone. This time around, Republicans—already panicked at the damage they’ve done to their standing with women voters in a disastrous primary season that opened a yawning gender gap—gleefully seized on a snide remark by a CNN commentator to posture as the defenders of women while attacking Democrats as heartless aggressors.

The whole flap was fraudulent, of course; all parties immediately agreed that Hilary Rosen’s crack that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life” was bad and that mothers are good, whether they work for pay or not. Glad we got that settled.

But meanwhile, everyone ignored the real question, as usual. When it comes to the endless acrimony over stay-at-home motherhood, the issues with the power to wreck lives and cripple the nation’s fiscal stability are financial, not personal or political.

When Rosen said that Ann Romney had “never worked,” it was perfectly obvious that she was referring to the classic definition of work as something one does for pay: “the labor, task or duty that affords one his accustomed means of livelihood,” as Webster’s dictionary puts it. All mothers know that motherhood involves a lot of hard work, but let’s stop pretending that that’s the same as working for a living. It isn’t. When you’re a stay-at-home mom, somebody else is bringing home the paycheck.

Equally misleading was Mrs. Romney’s retort that her “career” was being a mother. Again, Webster’s defines “career” as “a field for or pursuit of a consecutive progressive achievement, especially in public, professional or business life,” and also as “a profession for which one undergoes special training and which is undertaken as a permanent calling.” Motherhood is many things, but as a matter of pure semantics, it’s not a career. It’s also not a “permanent calling,” since kids grow up.

The point Rosen was trying to make—however awkwardly she made it—was about money: that Mrs. Romney, who has always been extremely privileged, has never shared the financial stresses of a single mother who’s a waitress in Nevada. This is hardly a new observation; Mrs. Romney, the daughter of one rich man and the wife of another, has long been perceived as out of touch with the everyday demands of most people’s lives. When her husband ran for the Senate in 1994, she gave an interview to The Boston Globe in which she came off as “wealthy and spoiled,” according to a Wall Street Journal news story. Another news article, in the Boston Herald, quoted her remarks under the headline: “Daughter of Privilege Knows Little of the Real World.”

In no way do such observations denigrate the herculean effort involved in raising five sons, nor do they minimize other challenges that Mrs. Romney has faced, which include multiple sclerosis. But as any working parent can attest, the responsibility of supporting a family is an enormous burden—one that, for anyone who isn’t rich, leads to a lot of sleepless nights and anxiety-ridden days. When you’re the major breadwinner of a household that includes children, you never escape from the worry and stress of that role.

Whether you’re a father with a stay-at-home wife, a working mother with a partner, or a single mother on her own, the buck stops with you if you’re providing the primary financial support for your family—and that responsibility is often terrifying. We all have our wide-awake-at-3-in-the-morning nights, and no doubt Mrs. Romney has endured her share. But her worries, however grave, have never included the ability to feed her kids or keep a roof over their heads—and those are problems that regularly torture countless American women.

For most of them, working for pay is a necessity, and staying home to raise their children is not an option, despite the constant blather about “choice.” Whether or not we want to do so—and many of us do—the majority of us work because we have to, and our children depend on us to bring in a reliable income. No one who has never shouldered that responsibility can ever really know what it’s like—how scary it is, how hard it is, and how lonely it can feel.

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The self-appointed defenders of the American family love to exalt motherhood and extol the virtues of women who make the “sacrifice” of staying home with their children, as Peggy Noonan put it on Friday’s Morning Joe.

It’s long past time to acknowledge the heroic sacrifices of the working mothers who do everything that stay-at-home moms do, but who also provide the crucial financial contributions that enable their families to stay afloat, even when the dads drop dead, lose their jobs, run off with other women, or otherwise default on their parental obligations.

When it comes to motherhood, there’s no shortage of heroism or sacrifice no matter which role you play. But for all too many families, if mom didn’t bring home the bacon, there wouldn’t be any food on the table.