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(which she clearly didn’t need), and that her marriage took on a “1950’s whiff,” her world narrowed and she became outdated.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.

View 9 Comments >