Parenting and families: Are we focusing on the wrong debate?

We have got to stop talking about stay-at-home vs. working mothers as if it were some sort of debate, as if it were the central issue of parenting and families. It’s not.

I am really annoyed by an installment in The Debate, a blog on Huffington Post in which Lisa Heffernan says that she regrets being a stay-at-home mom. She laments her loss of income (which she clearly didn’t need), and that her marriage took on a “1950’s whiff,” her world narrowed and she became outdated.  Yet none of this seems to have occurred to her until after her boys were grown; she says that she stayed home because she wanted to be with them, and she is grateful for the time they had.

Puh-lease.  Welcome to the fact that you don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. But more than that, the post totally misses the point.

Most mothers don’t have the luxury of regrets like these. For most of us, staying home or working, or doing whatever combination we do, is a not just a personal but a practical and economic decision. It’s not about feminism or the lack of feminism. It’s about doing what works for our families.

That’s why I wish we could stop talking about mothers and whether they work or not, and instead start talking about what might actually help children and families. Like …

Paid maternity leave. Did you know that the U.S. is one of only eight countries in the world (of the 188 with known policies) that doesn’t have paid maternity leave? Having paid leave helps families get off to the right start. And once maternity leave is over, families need …

Affordable quality childcare. Ms. Heffernan could stay home. That’s not the case for lots and lots of parents. It’s not easy to find really good childcare unless you have ample resources—and like the lack of paid maternity leave, this forces many parents to make choices that aren’t always the best ones for their children. We need to raise the bar for child care when it comes to training and licensing—and we need to subsidize it, so everyone can afford it. Speaking of affordable, we also need…

Affordable higher education. This would help more people achieve higher incomes, which helps families—and lowering the debt burden on young adults gives them more flexibility in choosing jobs and hours. Speaking of flexibility, it would be nice if we had…

More flexibility in the workplace. I respect Marissa Mayer’s decision to stop her employees at Yahoo from working at home, but the truth is that many jobs, or at least parts of jobs, can be done from home.  Many can also be done during different hours than the traditional 9 to 5, and many jobs can be shared. My husband and I have done some of this: I do a lot of my writing at home (albeit often before sunrise) and my husband works a lot of nights and weekends. It has made all the difference in our ability to be with our children. Speaking of flexibility, it would be nice to have…

Cultural acceptance of different kinds of families. Who says that moms always have to be the primary caretakers? What about dads? Or shared arrangements, like the one my husband and I have worked out?  We should support a father’s decision to stay home if that’s what works for him and his family. Speaking of support, it would be great to have …

More community support for families. The town where I live has a Family Room for new parents, afterschool programs at the elementary schools, a YMCA and lots of town-supported sports and community activities. These kinds of programs give parents options—and connect them with people who can help them care for and raise their children.  As they say, it takes a village to raise a child.

Because raising children is really the point here.  Yes, we want parents to be happy with their jobs and their lives; happy parents generally make better parents.  But ultimately, what we need to do is support parents in raising children—because our children are our responsibility and our future.

Let’s talk about that instead.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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  • Suzi Q 38

    I stayed home for the most part and liked it.
    I worked part time when they were older, and was there to pick them up everyday.
    I am not complaining. I feel fortunate, as I enjoyed spending as much time as possible with them.
    I also picked jobs with flexible schedules. The problem is that the pay was not very high.
    Everyone is different.

  • Original_Cait

    “Paid maternity leave. Did you know that the U.S. is one of only eight countries in the world (of the 188 with known policies) that doesn’t have paid maternity leave?”

    Maternity leave only? That’s a bit last-century, in terms of gender stereotyping.

    Australia for one doesn’t have paid maternity leave, they have paid parental leave. And it is pretty generous, paying the parent who takes leave $622/week for up to 18 weeks, along with 2 weeks at the same rate ($622/week) for the other parent so that for the first two weeks, both parents get a chance to bond with their new child.

    As LanceMD points out, this is not a “woman’s issue” — it is a family issue. It is also an issue of how much citizens are willing to be taxed in order for their paycheque to be redistributed: Australia’s tax rate is quite a bit higher than America’s, and I’m not sure how happy the 53% of Americans who already pay 100% of the federal taxes are going to be to have their burden increased even more.

    I’ll add that the one fly in the ointment for high-income professions like doctors, is the income test. You have to have earned $150,000 or less in the financial year before your claim is put in — a penny more, and you’re ineligible. There is a little bit of resentment, even in Australia where people are generally more comfortable with being asked to contribute financially to “the common good”, that those who pay the most tax to finance this scheme are not eligible to claim from it.

  • usvietnamvet

    All great points and it would be great if fathers got to stay home if they are the better parent. And as for Lisa Heffernan’s lamenting her time as a “stay at home” Mom, I feel sorry for her. first there is no use in worrying about the past….it’s gone. Second I wonder how her kids feel about her time with them? And just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you have to stop evolving. Many working mothers would kill for the choice to be able to stay at home. And so would many working Dads. She needs to grow up.

  • Terry Palardy

    Very well said. Improving the status of early childhood care is tied to the economy … raise the status and you will raise the quality of applicants’ training. But the economy is not a rubber band. If the status of everyone’s profession rises, inflation is rampant. Financial (and subsequently emotional) depression follows inflation. It is a sad truth that, whatever the median level of income and status is, there will be some above it and some below it. I agree that early childhood education is more important than any other level, and ought not be at the bottom of the pay scale. Would lawyers take the bottom to allow educators to rise? Would administrators take the bottom to allow their teachers and direct service assistants to rise? Would businesses, corporations, industrial plants cut everyone’s salary to provide the parental leave that other countries allow? Why are some families in better financial positions than others? You know why. Everyone born to a parent with a job is more fortunate than everyone born to a parent without a job. Our social safety nets are being stretched to the max now, without parental leave. What could we do away with to have enough resources to care better for new parents and their children? Who would take less to provide others with more?

    • Guest

      Maybe doctors who want moms to get paid for staying home and having kids should take a 50% pay cut to fund such a program.

  • rbthe4th2

    What benefits are being given to the single people? If you give benefits in the form of maternity leave, what do you do about a sabbatical for others who don’t have kids, or not married, or empty nesters? I’ve seen a lot of bending over for parents, but we need to consider everyone else in the pie also.

    • ardellaeagle

      Parental leave isn’t being considered as a ‘benefit’, much like ‘disability’ leave isn’t a benefit. Granted, no one chooses to need temporary disability leave whereas many do choose parenthood, parental leave and pay are not benefits. Stop looking for a handout.

      • Guest

        If women demand that pregnancy not be seen as a disability, they shouldn’t compare maternity leave to disability leave. #PROTIP

        Look, this is not the 1950s anymore. We have free birth control, and we have safe, legal abortion on demand. We pay hundreds of millions to “planned parenthood” to help even the poor “plan” their “parenthood”. There are a lot of reasons why it’s to society’s benefit to pay working women who choose to have babies, so stick to arguing those. But don’t claim that paid maternity leave is not a benefit, that just looks silly.

        • ardellaeagle

          Au contraire, asking that people who are not parents receive some sort of compensatory benefits in lieu of parental leave looks silly and trite. Why aren’t you asking for reserved parking spaces for EVERYONE just because people with disabilities have reserved parking spaces?

          Maternity leave is not a disability, nor should it be compared to disability. However, there are companies in the US that do not offer maternity leave and pregnant and birthing employees need to use disability leave for maternity reasons. Maternity leave should be separate and distinct
          from disability leave.