Now, I’m just as jealous of the yoga-pants-at-9-a.m.-on-Monday-morning crowd as the next frazzled working mom. But, I’m sorry to say, however delicious charting the downfall of the wealthy at-home mom may be, we do have to stop for a little reality check. While the rich, bathed in our attention, are turning necessity into a hand-wringing sociological event, most women in this country are just going about their business, much as they always have.
We — journalists and readers both — simply must, for once, resist the temptation to let what may or may not be happening to the top 5 percent (or 1 percent) of our country’s families set the story line for what women’s lives are becoming in this recession.
Because, the fact is, the story’s not about them.
“This is a classic blue collar recession,” says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. Fully half the jobs that have been lost so far have been in construction and manufacturing. Only 5.1 percent of job losses have been in finance and insurance — the kinds of careers that support the opt-out lifestyle.
The kind of marital tensions that we’re seeing in the downwardly mobile lifestyles of the rich and wretched, the family historian Stephanie Coontz told me this week, aren’t necessarily typical of couples further down the income scale, either. Wealthy families, she said, have tended, with their work-around-the-clock husbands and at-home wives, to have adopted a rather old-fashioned model of marriage, with fixed sex roles. They’ve set the tone, but the rest of the population hasn’t necessarily followed.
Increasing numbers of working class women now — in a downturn where 82 percent of the job losses have been among men – have become their family’s sole wage-earners, it’s true. But their husbands, very often, are holding their own at home just fine. For while the stereotype has long been that working class men won’t do “women’s work,” Coontz said, the truth is that in recent years they’ve had a better track record than the most high-income men in sharing domestic duties. Twenty percent of these men, in fact, actually do more housework and child care now than their wives. “These people have been doing it for some time and they’re much more ideologically committed to doing it,” she said. “I think your worst offenders” (dirty coffee mug-wise), “are in that top 5 percent.”
“I’ve been a little irritated by the slams on men,” she added.
It’s not just for the sake of being fair to the hubbies that we’ve got to keep our wits about us these days and avoid falling into the usual clichés about class and gender with which we tend to make sense of men and women’s changing lives. There’s a deeper reason, too: paying attention only to the – real or perceived – “choices” and travails of the top 5 percent hides the experiences of all the rest. And this means that the needs of all the rest never quite rise to the surface of our national debate or emerge at the top of our political priorities.
This happened very obviously in the 1990s, when the New Traditionalist story line hid the fact that many mothers at home were actually either poor (and unable to “afford to work” if they had kids, as Coontz puts it), or had had their nonworking “choice” made for them by an inflexible workplace or a high-earning husband’s nearly 24/7 work schedule. Years of public prosperity passed without any real action on creating family-friendly workplaces.
We can’t let that happen again now.
Wealthy families may be downsizing somewhat, but many others are living right on the edge. The former don’t need government support; the latter desperately do. There were hopeful signs emerging in the not-so-distant past that much-needed change might be on the way: a number of states had voted to start to pay for family leave, and momentum was gathering behind paid sick leave, too. But now, states are backing away from those initiatives. A ballot measure that would have brought paid sick leave to Ohio has been withdrawn, the Associated Press has reported, and in New Jersey and Washington state the implementation of new mandates for paid family leave may be delayed because of fiscal concerns.
The Obama administration clearly has made the real-life needs of middle- and working-class families a high priority. But in the current climate, fighting Republican and business community concerns about “raising the cost of work” is going to be a real challenge.
So let’s make sure we remember who’s really suffering. And give their stories their due.