When I read articles and blogs that discuss stay-at-home parenthood, I often come across something like this line: “Women should have the choice to stay home or work.”
Now, that line has always disconcerted me, though probably not for the reasons you think. I believe caregiving should be recognized as a very real and very important contribution. And instead of each side fighting the other, we’d be happier if we focused on being guiltless moms (and dads!). But that line is disconcerting because of how our discussion of working vs. caring at home is framed. Think about it. The first thing that jumps out at me is “women.” If only women have the choice to be the primary caregiver or do paid work, then it presupposes that their partners (typically men) do not have that choice. After all, unless there is independent wealth, a family needs to work to sustain itself. I have never heard the corollary: “men should have the choice to stay home or work outside.” Even though there are very dedicated stay-at-home dads out there, and their ranks have been increasing for the past decade.
For reasons I can’t quite articulate the emphasis on women’s choice to stay home vs. work has always bugged me. I guess it’s because it frames parenting and career in such a gendered way. It seems unfair to both women and men. It is unfair to women because it assumes that only women will be struggling with this decision, and that if anyone quits it will be the wives because of their sex. It is unfair to men because it assumes that men leaving paid employment for caregiving is not a choice that is open to them or their family.
Furthermore, only a dual-income family have the choice to downshift into a stay-at-home parent / one working parent. Both partners/spouses cannot choose to both NOT work and stay home. Single parents, unless they are, again, independently wealthy or have significant financial support from outside parties, do not have that choice at all.
I am certainly not an expert on work, life, and family (for those, I encourage you to visit the blogs of these fine folks), but I’d like to propose that instead of defaulting to “women should have the choice to stay home or do paid work,” why don’t we talk about how “families should do what is best for their situation.” Sometimes that means both spouses work hard at big careers, sometimes that means one parent holds down the long hours and one parent has a more flexible schedule, sometimes that means one parent work and one parent stays home, and sometimes that means both parents work part-time. Over the course of a lifetime, these roles can change and emphasis on career-building vs. family time may change as well.