Spoiler Alert: “Traditional Mothers” Win Lots of Bread

This is a cross-post of a two-part article I originally wrote for Kaylie over at FamilyFriendlyWork. You can find the original posts here and here.


“I just think that this should be in large letters on the front page of every newspaper in America, because what we’re seeing with four out of ten families now, the woman is the primary breadwinner–you’re seeing the disintegration of marriage, you’re seeing men who were hard hit by the economic recession in ways that women weren’t, but you’re seeing, I think, systemically, larger than the political stories that we follow every day, something going terribly wrong in American society, and it’s hurting our children. And it’s gonna have impact for generations to come.”

–Juan Williams, Lou Dobbs Tonight

Lately, there’s been some complaining because women are now surpassing men in college enrollment by ten percent. (1) Some, like Juan Williams and Lou Dobbs, worry because more moms are bringing home a higher percentage of the household income than their husbands. (2) I’ve even heard it argued that women are taking something important from the men; that they should step aside and give their education and their jobs to the men because “the men need them more.” Because men have always been the primary breadwinners, you see. Just take a look at history. The men go out and grow crops and money while the ladies stay home to change diapers and scrub floors. It’s traditional.

Except it’s not.

Throughout history, most mothers have contributed directly to household production, either through earning an income themselves, or through doing other things to bring in food and create products the family needed: gathering food, weaving cloth, and so forth. Most worked side by side with their husbands in the fields or in the shop, or spent the day doing things like stirring stinky vats of lye into soap while their children either worked with their parents or occupied themselves. Since recorded history began, any woman who was actually wealthy enough to dedicate most of her time to raising her children hired someone to help her with it. Until recently, every family member, starting at a young age, directly contributed to household production in some way. In the Middle Ages, many parents, both rich and poor, would send their children away at about age 7 or 8 to be apprenticed or work as servants in wealthier households. The idea of a non-wealthy family that could afford to spare one of its members to devote most of their energy to intensive child-rearing, or even keeping the house clean, is a new one.

In spite of being poorly informed about history and the day to day lives of most of the working class people on this planet, Mr. Williams is still touching on a real problem, though it’s not the one he thinks it is. It has roots in the changes we’ve seen to our pattern of working and living since the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1760 through 1840.(3) As I’ve discussed, the vast majority of women were already doing work other than child-rearing, cooking meals, and house-cleaning; they were just doing it at home, or someplace where they could easily bring their small children. With the advent of factories and industrial-scale mining, many families gave up the traditional work of farming and crafting products by hand; at first because it seemed like a good opportunity to earn money, and later because cheap factory-produced items and new industrial farming techniques were putting small farmers and people who used to hand-craft for a living out of business.

During this time, women left household production for factory work in unprecedented numbers. More and more people moved into cities, removing many of the options that women had for bringing in food and goods when they lived in rural farming areas. Where the old way of surviving was compatible with having both parents generate goods or income with children on hand, it was not safe or allowed for mothers to bring their children to work at the factory. The logical choice for those who could afford it was to have the mother stay at home and the father go out to earn wages. But most families simply could not afford losing the mother’s contribution, and necessity became, appropriately, the mother of invention.

“The movement of work into factories increased the difficulty of combining work and childcare. In most factory work the hours were rigidly set, and women who took the jobs had to accept the twelve or thirteen hour days. Work in the factories was very disciplined, so the women could not bring their children to the factory, and could not take breaks at will. However, these difficulties did not prevent women with small children from working.

Nineteenth-century mothers used older siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and dame schools to provide child care while they worked. Occasionally mothers would leave young children home alone, but this was dangerous enough that only a few did so. Children as young as two might be sent to dame schools, in which women would take children into their home and provide child care, as well as some basic literacy instruction. In areas where lace-making or straw-plaiting thrived, children were sent from about age seven to “schools” where they learned the trade.” (4)

Plenty of mothers in the lower and middle socioeconomic classes, as well as their children, joined the men in the factories or found other ways to continue earning an income for their family. Just as it had been through most of the world’s history, there was simply no other choice. The only difference now was that the mode of providing their families with food and clothing had changed to be incompatible with watching over them at the same time. Though the image of the woman as a housewife and caretaker became romanticized, this lifestyle was only ever an option for those who could afford it; and this only because the advent of cheap factory labor made products once produced by women at home affordable store-bought to a wider range of people. On a worldwide scale, only a few families could afford to live without the mother either earning an income or contributing to household production through gathering food, sewing clothes, etc, rather than purchasing these products with money.

Now, how does all this work in with today’s economy and family structure, which Mr. Williams is so certain is crumbling around us because moms are earning money?

Here are a few statistics to start:

-Though our standard of living is infinitely better than it was a hundred years ago, in the last few decades wages have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living. Since 2001, they have stagnated even more severely. (5)

-American workers now put in an average of 180 more work hours per year than they did twenty years ago, making the U.S. workweek the longest workweek in the industrialized world. (6)

-Our popular obsession with high-income working mothers making the “choice” to stay home does not reflect the situation of the average working mother in the average working family. “…our fixation on high-profile mothers and their employers, both real and fictional, speaks more to the problems many women wish they had than the ones they actually do have.” (7) Most families do not have one spouse who makes enough income that they can have the other decide to stay home with impunity.

-Single women with children earn an average of fifty-six cents on the dollar of what married men make. (8) For most of these women, the bulk of their earnings can easily be eaten up in paying for daycare, leaving them to struggle with even the basic necessities. Being a single mother is the highest indicator for poverty in the U.S. (9)

-In the last few decades, the cost of housing, health care, and other basics have risen rapidly. More work has become freelance, leaving families to purchase their own insurance. Overall, wages have fallen in relation to the cost of living. (10) “As a result, even the average amount of money a typical two-parent family has for either discretionary spending or savings has dropped, a second income has become necessary to maintain most families’ lifestyles or, in some cases, to survive.” (11)

-The number of children going hungry in the U.S. rose by 50 percent in 2007 and is still rising. (12)

-Between the 2006-2007 school year and the 2007-2008 school year, 459 school districts in the U.S. reported an increase in homelessness among students of at least 25 percent. (13)

-”While most middle-income families could once count on financial stability and the ability to at least feed and clothe their offspring in exchange for their work, they are increasingly vulnerable to job loss, bankruptcy, eviction, and foreclosure that used to haunt only those on the very lowest rung of our economy.” (14)

Juan Williams is right. Something has gone terribly wrong in American society, and it’s hurting our children. But that “something” can’t reasonably be blamed on women earning money. If anything else, it seems they need to earn more.

Our economy has not suddenly changed so much that more families are now able to finance a stay-at-home parent as compared with families from decades or centuries ago. With the offshoring of most of our factory production (remembering that there are moms working in those factories, and none of them can afford to stay home with their children), those cheap manufactured goods we first got ahold of during the Industrial Revolution have become even more abundant and even cheaper. US families spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food and clothing than they did a hundred years ago, while at the same time enjoying a much higher standard of living. (15) But it is not, as I have heard some argue, a matter of giving up a second flat screen TV and a weekly night out at the movies so that mom can stay home with the kids. The percentage of our incomes spent on health care and housing costs have risen tremendously, even as the average family has gotten smaller. (16) Things like cars, phones, and computers are actually necessary to function in today’s world. We may be captives of materialism, but that does not explain away the need for most families to bring in two incomes. Especially when you take into account the moral and health-related questions that surround our current ability to obtain our household needs at such a cheap price and produce food in a way that keeps the prices so low. How can we insist that all families should be able to get by without the mother making a tangible economic contribution, when our current standard of living would not be possible at all without mothers in China and India working at twenty five cents an hour to sew our shirts and assemble our furniture?

It’s undeniable that women have been the primary caretakers of young children pretty much everywhere for all of written history, but they’ve done it while they were producing income or the equivalent in goods for household use. In modern hunter gatherer societies, for example, the generally female work of gathering provides 60%-80% of the group’s calories, (17) not to mention the most reliable supply of food (Primary breadwinners in the most literal sense of the word, with no disintegrating marriages in sight). This is generally done while looking after the young children, just as farming and food preservation, shopkeeping, or making household supplies would have been done 150 years ago, and just as some people work from home while caring for their children today. Modern society presents us with a problem; not because mothers are suddenly wanting to help support their families when they never did before, but because things have changed so that most can no longer do that and watch over their young children at the same time.

We can address this issue. We can do it without imposing social and economic restrictions for the sake of an idealized “traditional family” that has never been a reality for most people. All parents–mothers and fathers–should be able to both earn a living and be present in their children’s lives without facing judgement from those around them, or facing economic hardship.

How to solve the problem? Legal requirements that all jobs pay a living wage would be a good place to start. Education is important, but we can only use so many lawyers and doctors, and we still need people to gut fish and work at WalMart. The answer is that the fish gutters and WalMart workers must be respected, and paid enough so that they can take care of their families. Another answer: jobs at all income levels need to incorporate policies that allow employees the flexibility to take care of their children. Maternity and paternity leave, on-site day cares, and more flexible work hours are only a few of the changes companies can make to help create more stable and successful families and employees. We could ask what sorts of jobs might work well with children present. I remember time spent sick with my mom at work, secure reading and playing in her cubicle when I was too young to stay at home alone. Her productivity didn’t suffer, but her standing with her boss did. I don’t think it needs to be that way. We need more people thinking and generating ideas on how we can make work more family-friendly, and more people willing to accept that our current model for trying to manage work and family is both non-traditional and problematic.

Families are extremely important. Home is the place where we learn how to interact, how to survive in the adult world, how to be PEOPLE. We need to promote safety and stability for this essential unit. We need to make sure that our children and our parents receive the nurturing and the physical care they need. But trying to take mothers out of the work equation is not the answer. It never has been.

(1) Economic News Release by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/hsgec.nr0.htm Wednesday, April 17, 2013. Accessed June 5, 2013.(2) Memmot, Mark. “Moms are Now the Primary Breadwinners in 40 Percent of Homes.”http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/05/29/187019187/moms-are-now-primary-breadwinners-in-40-percent-of-homes May 29 2013, acessed June 5, 2013.(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution(4) EH.net Encyclopedia, “Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution,” 02-05-2010, retrieved 05-21-2013.http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/burnette.women.workers.britain#31

(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/sunday-review/americas-productivity-climbs-but-wages-stagnate.html?_r=0

(6) Janet C. Gornick, “The Government’s Gone Fishin’: The Absence of Work/Family Reconciliation Policy in the United States,” research prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Symposium: Who Cares? Dilemmas of Work and Family in the 21st Century, Chicago, Illinois, October 20, 2006.

(7) Lerner, Sharon. The War on Moms, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2010, p 59.

(8) Center For American Progress, April 25, 2008.

(9) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminization_of_poverty, last edited March 27 2013, accessed on May 19 2013

(10) Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke (New York: Basic Books, 2003)

(11) Lerner, Sharon, The War on Moms, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2010, p 68.

(12) Economic Research Service, “Food Security in the United States,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, November 2008.

(13) Barbara Duffield and Phillip Lovell, “The Economic Crisis Hits Home: The Unfolding Increase in Child and Youth Homelessness,” National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, December 2008.

(14) Lerner, Sharon, The War on Moms, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2010, p 72.

(15) http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-america-spends-money-100-years-in-the-life-of-the-family-budget/255475/ Accessed June 27, 2013. These statistics are interesting, but they don’t account for some important things. For example, The article states that in 1900 half the families in the US were still farmers. But that is unaccounted for in the income breakdown. Families were spending much more of their income on food, but how many of them were growing most of their food themselves, while spending a high portion of what little they did earn on things they could not manufacture at home? It seems to me that this would interfere with the cost comparison between then and now. Also, though the article mentioned offshoring production of clothing as a factor in the price drop, there was no mention of our changes in food production as related to price. Industrial farming of crops and factory farming our meat has played a large role in the price drop shown in the article.

(16) ibid

(17) http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Richerson/BooksOnline/He3-95.pdf p 47, accessed June 8, 2013.


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