Yesterday in comments on my feminist homeschooling post and at her own blog, Marcy of Marcy's Musings suggested that my arguments against long-term withdrawal from the paid labor market were driven by a politics of fear. She pushed me to keep thinking about this, since they way I mix my feminism with my parenting is definitely not driven by fear. It’s a balance between risk-taking and pragmatism, which recognizes that "choice" is illusory unless you've got a clear picture of the trade-offs.
Honestly, a lot of people (feminists or not) might say I take a few too many risks. Too many years in grad school? Check. In an "impractical" field? Check. Married a foreigner whose training is in philosophy? Check. Rode home the other night on my bike after midnight - alone - through the big city of Berlin? Check. In other areas, though, I'm boringly risk-averse: I won't talk on a cell phone while driving, and I'm very careful with my kids' safety.
We all take risks - some smart, some stupid - and the trick is to figure out which risks are worthwhile. Marcy recognizes, for instance, that her decision to stay home with her kids through their school years entails a financial risk. She doesn't deny it, though she reduces it mostly to the risk of divorce, while I see the issue as broader: a spouse can also die or become disabled while kids are still young. My husband narrowly escaped death twice, and he went through a prolonged period of disability.
My story is far from unique. The Sungold family tree indicates why it's important for women not to become too dependent financially over the long term. One grandma was divorced from an alcoholic husband in her early twenties. (Circa 1912! Imagine the scandal!) She raised her two daughters alone until she met my grandpa nearly two decades later and then gave birth to my dad. One of my dad's half-sisters was divorced while her daughter was still tiny. His other half-sister was widowed in her early fifties. My maternal grandma was widowed while still in her early forties, with four children to support, the youngest (my mom) only six years old. Both my mom and her sister were divorced while they still had young children at home. Their two brothers remained married to the same women into old age.
So, in those two generations, only two of eight women enjoyed a husband's support throughout their childrearing years. (And those two were farm wives who worked from dawn to dusk and beyond.) It's not that the women in my family are unusually flaky, either; those who divorced did so only under considerable duress. While none of the women in my family chose single motherhood, they still had to find ways to cope, financially and emotionally. For instance, both my grandmas were teachers, and that's how they held their families together.
My family tree suggests why it's neither pro- nor anti-feminist to say that women run greater risks the longer they're completely financially dependent on a mate. The risks are simply a pragmatic reality.
Now, Marcy interprets my argument as saying
women shouldn't have the freedom to do what we find fulfillment in, if it means we might be dependent on the men in our lives, because if those men should fail, we will be in serious trouble. We should follow the current cultural pattern and go to work so we will have a "safety net" in case our husbands should walk out on us.No, what I'm saying is something different. I'm suggesting that we need to balance a quest for fulfillment with awareness of the risks of long-term dependence, which grow over time. Only if we're realistically aware of the risks can we make informed and conscious choices.
(Read the rest here.)
I'm not at all arguing that mothers should take six weeks' maternity leave and then plunge back into work full-time. I'm not inveighing against stay-at-home parenting. My own choices have tilted in that direction since my first baby was born. I chose to take the financial risk of parenting first - and working for pay only secondarily - during my kids' preschool years. I believe kids need intense attention while they're very young. As infants, my boys got that almost entirely from their dad and me. Starting from around their second birthday, they went to daycare half-days with six other kids and a wonderful caretaker; they loved it, and I could work part time. Only now, with both kids in school, am I returning to work full time. I'm lucky I'll still be able to pick up the kids after school, since I can grade and prep classes at home. My work responsibilities have allowed me to spend lots of time with my kids, and to enjoy the sort of self-fulfillment that Marcy describes. I was lucky that my husband supported (and quite literally subsidized) this arrangement. Other people make other choices, and that's okay too, as long as their choices are conscious and well informed.
Indeed, failure to recognize the importance of active, involved parenting - and its rewards for children, mothers, and fathers - poses very significant risks of its own. The truth is, most jobs are a hell of a lot less interesting than mine, and it's very common for parenting to be far more fulfilling than paid work. That goes for most of men's jobs, too, although lots of fathers still find their fulfillment through the breadwinner role - sometimes too narrowly, at the expense of closer relationships with their children.
Where I differ from Marcy is mainly in the length of time we're spending outside of the paid labor force. The risk here is that re-entry into the labor force becomes increasingly difficult, the longer you've been out. For women, this has historically translated into a substantial risk of poverty in old age or upon their marriage ending. (One of my aunts is in precisely this position now, at age 76.) If the kids are still at home, they're hurt by poverty, too.
In other words, I'm arguing that we need to consider the long-term perspective in our decisions. For me, it made sense to roll back my career to spend lots of time with my little ones. That was a risk and a trade-off. It struck me as worthwhile - and it was. But I see how its costs continue to rise over time. The choice to homeschool, if it means two decades or more outside of the labor force, carries risks and sacrifices that would be too costly in my life. Above all, my children would depend on me completely if my mate's health failed again.
Other folks are free to take that risk, and for some parents whose circumstances are different than mine, it may make sense. However, it would be misleading to portray these significant risks as minimal or to argue that homeschooling may be a more feminist choice than relying on the public schools. The only feminist choice, I'd say, is one that's thoroughly informed.
Finally, I really haven't addressed the elephant in the room: socioeconomic class. It should be clear, though, that the capacity for real choice depends on a certain level of prosperity. In many families, both parents must work in order to avoid eviction and keep the utilities on. That's when choice - even to take a brief maternity leave - can become an unattainable luxury. And that's why poverty has to be a central issue for feminists. That would be a whole 'nother post.