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Step Aside, Mommy Wars, Let's Talk Policy

The American feminist blogosphere is aflutter this week with discussion of a war of words between Hilary Rosen and Ann Romney about working moms and stay at home moms. It is a discussion deeply rooted in class warfare and mommy warfare and nicely wrapped up in partisan politics. It is a discussion that has played out over, and over, and over again in the past and again this week.

The renewed discussion has brought out some brilliant voices, for sure. On Mom 101, Liz wrote about the myth of the rich, selfish, working mom, noting the many reasons, beyond financial necessity that mothers choose to work. On Black Girl in Maine, Shay wrote about the way our choices are limited by the cards we are dealt in life, concluding that:

In the end, we all make choices, we have too, its part of this experience we call living life but let’s not kid ourselves that we all have the ability to make the same choices because we don’t. Who and what we are shape the decisions and choices we make.

These are important conversations to have, especially when dealing with people who are still in denial and think this is a simple black and white issue. But they are also conversations that don't deserve and shouldn't need nearly as much vitriol.  If women and families were supported in the choices that they make, perhaps this whole mommy war would fizzle out into something not much more controversial than playground discussions about whether to puree your baby's food or not.

Let me give you an example. In Quebec, where I live, there is a subsidized day care program and a child care tax credit for parents who do not get a space in the subsidized program.  Parents who get a subsidized day care space pay $7 per day for child care. Parents who don't get a subsidized space get to deduct child care expenses from their income on their federal taxes and they get between 26% and 75% of the money they spent on child care back as a tax credit on their provincial taxes (depending on income level). If you want to see what those policies would mean for your family, based on your income level and the rate you pay for child care, you can make your head explode with this handy little calculator.

I know, I know. People who don't know better are going to scream about how they don't want to pay for someone else's daycare when they chose not to have children or chose to stay at home with their children. What they don't know, however, is that they wouldn't be paying for it. Quebec's child care policies have been proven to pay for themselves and then some. For every $1.00 that Quebec taxpayers put in to subsidized day care, they get back $1.49 from the increased income taxes and consumption taxes resulting from higher maternal workforce participation. That's a pretty good return on investment, in my opinion.

We also have maternity and parental leave programs which are not perfect, but are a good start. Oh, and health care that is universally available instead of being tied to that crappy job that you really wish you could leave, but has amazing benefits so you can't.

I know there are Americans fighting for these things and I hope that they continue to fight that fight.  Because I agree with Ann Romney that "all moms are entitled to choose their path". I just don't think the current system gives them the flexibility and support needed to do so and that is a problem for mothers, for families, for children, and for the economy. As with real wars, these mommy wars are not truly about a clash between moms, but about a system that has let people down, poured fuel on the fire, and left each family to fend for themselves.

Can we call a cease fire on the mommy wars and find a way to make things easier for all mothers, regardless of their choices?

Image credit: davi sommerfield on flickr
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Reader Comments (81)

YES! Thank you! That is all. =)

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

I do not have words to express how much I love this post. I want to nail it to every US congressperson's office door.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCriss

Everyone is missing the point that Ann Romney is a MILLIONAIRE, and THAT is why she is out-of-touch with economic situations for average Americans. It has nothing to do with her work status.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatie

Hear! Hear! If anything comes from this, let it be a serious discussion about how the U.S. desperately needs better maternity and child care policies.

What I find so interesting in all of these work outside vs home with kids debates is the question of what the family can afford. I learned a long time ago that people can make horrible life changing decisions in an instant. Therefore, no matter how much money my husband makes, I will always work. I never want to be homeless, or otherwise unable to care for myself and my children. If working when we don't need the extra income potentially provides this futuristic lifeline, I am willing to do it. Also, in my feminist classes, there was a study that mothers who work outside the home are more likely to have daughters who are traditionally successful (work outside the home, able to live independently, etc. ). There was no correlation with sons. I have three daughters, another reason to continue working.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercari

I don't think people are missing that point. In fact, I wrote this post partly out of frustration because it seemed that was all people were talking about. While it important to point out, dwelling on it instead of moving past that to talk about solutions isn't going to help anyone.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Word. The U.S. loves to talk about "family values", but does very little to value families. Just did our taxes and the child care credit for daycare amounted to a 10% deduction. Hardly worth the paperwork.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

When is a choice not a choice? When the deck is always stacked against women. Thanks for this, Annie!

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Drury

Go for it! :)

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Sing it Annie!

I agree, this is all a distraction from policy. I'm waiting to hear the Romney's proposals for working families by the way. Should be interesting.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMom101

What does a 10% deduction mean? Do you mean that you get 10% of the money you spent on child care back (as a tax credit)? Or do you mean you saved 10% off of your taxes? Or something else?

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I'm not sure if being able to choose whatever you want as a mom would end the 'mommy wars'. In a lot of European countries daycare is subsidized and people can choose to work or to stay home with their kids and moms still criticize each other for the choices that they make. It's a sensitive issue and unfortunately lots of people seem to think that their way of living is the only acceptable way.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterInBabyAttachMode

I think it is sensitive to some extent everywhere, but not to the same degree that it is in the United States. In both Quebec (where I live now) and Berlin (where we lived temporarily), parents had a great deal of flexibility and support in making the choices that are best for their family. While there is still some judgment and questioning of other people's choices, I don't think it gets as nasty when there is institutional support for different choices.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I don't understand why people think it's a good idea to develop a dependence on government programs to mange private households. I am for safety nets for the widow/widower/single parent left in the lurch, but these should be safety nets for acute problems, not social programs woven into the "way of life." I swear, my husband and I are just regular folks who happened to plan and live earnestly and within our means. We're doing it on 1.5 incomes. When my kid is older, I'll ramp up. It just doesn't have to be that hard if you are a responsible grown up and don't expect the world on platter all at once.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

That would be "manage" private households...apologies to francophones that may have been confused by my poor typing

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

Do you invest any money for your future? Do you expect a return on that money? When well managed, I see government programs (health care, education, child care, etc.) as an investment in the future of our society. I don't consider it expecting the world on a platter all at once. But I think that comes from a deep seated philosophical difference between you and I on the value and power of individualism versus collectivism.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Yes, "I think that comes from a deep seated philosophical difference between you and I on the value and power of individualism versus collectivism." I think that's it. I believe in helping people in need , but strongly encouraging people to be self sufficient. Compassionate and conscious individualism raises things to higher levels than collectivism, which I think caters to the lowest common denominator. For things like the environment, roads, energy, etc. that are in fact bigger than our individual homes and over most of our heads scientifically, I think some degree of collectivist efforts are valuable. For matters of the home and family, things that should be within an adult's capabilities to manage, I think collectivism oversteps. It may be "economical" or "efficient" but there is more to living than a balance sheet.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

That would be pretty distressing indeed if the government actually ate our private households, instead of just eating all our income in the guise of tax money for social engineering...lol

I think the whole SAHM vs. Working Moms issue is such a tough question partially because many of us who sacrifice a lot to be able to make the decision we want notice what we view as illogical, financially unsound, and/or selfish decisions by people who have chosen the other path-it is frustrating to see people with many things we would enjoy but do not have yet claiming not to have the financial freedom to choose the lifestyle we've chosen. It seems for some of them that they have simply failed to plan ahead, not that they are lacking in overall opportunity to earn and save money.

And that muddies the waters...it is hard to help those who genuinely lack opportunity without also inadvertently helping people who didn't plan ahead and who waste their money. That's a discussion I'd be interested in having-how can we help those who genuinely got dealt bad cards without throwing away our money helping people who had fine cards but aren't playing the game carefully? And how can we encourage people to plan ahead and play intelligently?

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrunchy Con Mommy

I think that the numbers in Quebec, i.e. the $1.49 return on every $1.00 invested, shows that you can help those who genuinely got dealt bad cards without throwing away your money helping people who had fine cards but aren't playing the game carefully. Because, you're not throwing your money away. Even if they didn't plan ahead, even if they made different choices than you would have made, they are putting all that money back into the system and then some.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Ooh I thought of one specific policy change I'd love to see: eliminate the low savings requirement for WIC (or at least raise the amount). I checked once when Hubby was in grad school and I was staying at home with our son, and we qualified for WIC by our basically non-existent income, but we had too much saved up. I think that pretty clearly discourages people from saving their money.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrunchy Con Mommy

For me, it's not even about moral hazard or rewarding sloth or poor planning accidentally. It's philosophical. There are public and private "sectors" to things. When you accept assistance you have to play by the rules of those you're getting assistance from. It's fine to have to obey the rules of the road, not dump chemicals in public waters, things like that, but I don't want to accept government help and then have to play by their rules, whatever they might make them to be, in my own home, with my own child. I'm not impressed with the American mainstream population and try to keep somewhat of a barrier...albeit it discreetly...

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

Interesting. I happily accept my tax credit for child care expenses without the government telling me what to do in my own home. I know there are other programs that come with a lot of dogma attached to them (e.g. thou shalt feed your baby jarred baby food from WIC because we won't fund real food for your baby), but that isn't the case with the tax-based incentives that we have in Quebec.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

It means I got about 10% of the total cost of daycare back as a tax credit. Or, in other words, that amount was subtracted from our total taxable income. (I think, our tax system is so complicated).

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

That's your choice.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Great post, Annie. After seeing this same argument richochet around the blogosphere for seven years without ever getting anywhere, I've given up on the idea that it will ever stop being a contentious issue. I'm just relieved to have been able to find my own personal balance on this one - something I wasn't sure I'd ever do.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniGirl

Great post. A few months ago there was a feature in "Working Mother" magazine and it drew attention to the fact that in terms of support for new moms--whether maternity leave, child care, whatever--the US ranked third last IN THE WORLD. Like, the entire world, including most "Third World" nations. That's sad. I think a big part of the problem is that the US is so polarized that policy makers are afraid to define the value of motherhood and of working women--like we don't think these values can co-exist--so heads are buried in the sand and nothing changes. Which spurs on the mommy wars, which increases the polarization, which keeps us going in a lose-lose loop. There are a lot of great advocacy organizations that are working to make changes, though, so I'm hopeful for my daughter's generation.

First, thanks for voicing a challenge here. Going back to the original post, *this* is what we should be debating- what programs to put in place, how much childrearing should be in the collective vs personal realm, etc- rather than continuing to wage the mommy wars.

I think childrearing in a democracy/republic should be at least partly collective. An analogy I read once that sums up my strongest reason for this: In a monarchy, you have a crown prince, and everyone pours lots of money and effort into the crown prince, because one day he will grow up to be king. In our society, *all* kids are the crown prince, and it's in everyone's best interest to make sure that they have a healthy start, and are well-educated.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllison

Thank you for the post. Yet another reason why I wish I lived in Canada. I live in Oregon, which is a great state to live in all-around, but has one of the highest rates of childcare in the country (case in point: http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/susan_nielsen/index.ssf/2012/04/need_good_child_care_start_loo.html). My husband and I are faced with an accidental pregnancy - our second. A child we will love insanely, but struggle mightily to pay for childcare for. Leaving my job is not an option - my husband and I work for nonprofits, and to leave a relatively stable paying job in this fragile economy would be insane. Having subsidized childcare would help level the playing field for parents who really struggle, and maybe help child care providers earn a living wage, too.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

Honestly "hardly worth the paperwork" doesn't position you as particularly need OR ambitious...

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

Yes, but you only receive that tax credit/deduction if your income falls within a certain bracket. If you're above that point, you don't qualify for child credits. Annie, in Canada, do ALL citizens receive subsidized day care/credits? Is it based on income?

In the US, if you make more than a certain amount, it doesn't matter how many children you have or how much or little child care you use, the government doesn't give you any credit for that. Just to throw a little wrench into the convo re: Mrs. Romney... even if she'd chosen to work (at a paying job), she wouldn't have received child tax credits because she's in a family who "chose" to live in a higher income bracket.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Whether you choose to work outside the home or stay at home or combine the two (and some of us need to for ends to meet), we are a village and should adopt the practice of looking after each other -- as a population, not just as nearest friends or neighbors.

I started my family in New Zealand. I never used childcare, so I can't speak to that issue or how it was covered. And I lived very rurally, surrounded by farm wives who looked after home and children and worked as farm hands. Dads could be horribly sexist blokes who were never involved in what they believed was the woman's domain - or because they also worked from home, were involved. Very different culture from where we live now.

From conception to six weeks after birth, care for my children and me was free. After that, the kids were free and I paid a small co-pay for doctor care. Midwives who assisted births at home or in the hospital were part of that coverage. I never felt like I gave up anything to receive this care (taxes were higher, but I was more than happy to pay, and we weren't wealthy by any means), but felt that the government and the people understood the value of looking after the health of the population. When I left the hospital with my twins, everyone was concerned that I had what I needed and was aware of the programs available to me. I was even a certain number of hours of home help because I also had a toddler at home (preschooler plus multiples equaled subsidized help - thankfully).

Compared to what I had come from in the US where you are looked down on for receiving public assistance and expected to buck up and survive without help, it was a breath of fresh and life-giving air. The struggle to get health care for my kids when we returned to the US was exhausting: all the paperwork for public assistance until we got on our feet -- the doctors who had filled their quotas for public assisted patients....

It's not a perfect system in NZ, but it points to not only needing policy, but a shift in how the population thinks about taking care of each other - that's almost impossible in the US. There's so much energy and money being thrown at public education, and so many frightening efforts to suppress reproductive rights, but no effort what so ever to look after the health of our youth from birth onward. Healthy kids are better learners. Women (parents) need help with reproductive rights and with their babies and children when they choose to have them. Preventative care always costs less than trying to fix problems down the road. This is one of the best investments any country can make for protection and betterment of it's population.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Thank you. I for one am tired of this debate. I am also tired of the assertion that people who work outside the home are being selfish. I have a master's degree and love my job, I also was miserable at home and found I was a better parent when I didn't have to spend all day, every day with them. Moving to preschool and school age was a breeze because they were already hugely independent. By all means stay at home with your children. I for one wouldn't judge because I KNOW that while it may be hugely rewarding, it can also be the loneliest, toughest, most isolating experience that is so under-appreciated in our society. But, for heaven's sake, that attitude has to work both ways, or we will NEVER stop fighting each other at the expense of making any real progress on issues that have the potential to make all our lives more enjoyable.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Killins

That's true. I really wish our system could be streamlined.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Didn't say I was needy. Seriously, why must you be so confrontational in every comment thread?

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

This is definitely a debate which will probably (sadly) continue till the ends of time.
Personally, I'm still aghast that one mother can accuse another mother of never having done a day's work in her life. It underscores how little we as a society collectively value child-rearing and parenting. The constant erosion of this valuable life skill/occupation is, I think, at the heart of a lot of societal breakdown, never mind the continual devaluation/oppression of women.
Unfortunately with the necessity for full worker status in modern families in N America (and many parts of Europe) in order to just survive, parents do not have a lot of choice in how they run their families and have no support in their choices either. And I honestly don't believe that you can understand this until you are a parent and faced with these non-choices, which is why I'm pissed off with the non-working comment which kicked off the whole media furore in the first place.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpomomama

This. OMG this.

I am elbow-deep in what has become 5 years of SAHM driving me right to the edge of the deep end. I am lonely and isolated and it's been so long since I've been around adults that I've honestly forgotten how to talk to people my own age. *sigh*

And as far as even relying on family for help? You can't even do that.

I'm over the "mommy wars" - they've pitted SAHMs against working moms and we've been at each other for long enough that we've forgotten that we should be working together to get some actual support rather than all the blather about "family values".

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina Roggenkamp

I've been thinking about this problem lately as at least partially one of linguistics, since "work" means lots of things: any effort, labor for pay, the place where that takes place, etc. (and as a physicist I have to jokingly add "motion against an external force.") We have a really hard time communicating, because everything we say can be interpreted one way or another. I'm guessing that the people making statements like "Mrs. Romney has never worked a day in her life" are banking on this ambiguity, in a way. They can claim that they're just saying she's never done paid work, which may be true, while also really saying that she's lazy, which probably isn't true.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllison


In Canada, all citizens can deduct child care expenses from their income (i.e. not pay tax on the money they paid on child care). That is a federal tax benefit.

Beyond that, it varies by province. In Quebec, where I live, citizens get between 26% and 75% of the money they spend on child care back as a tax credit. If your family income is below $32,070, you get 75% back. If your family income is above $142,915, you get 26% back. Everyone else is on a sliding scale in between those two amounts.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

As a scientist, I totally appreciate the physics joke!
As a SAHM, I totally get the linguistics and ambiguity.
I wonder if a dollar-amount was applied to stay-at-home parenting would the distinction between parenting and work disappear, or would it re-surface in a different set of clothing?
If the dollar-amount was applied and paid, I suspect that many countries would be bankrupted as a result - there is a vast under-appreciation of how much stay-at-home parents subsidise the world economy.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpomomama

Katie, so do you think that every wealthy politician is out of touch with working Americans, whether wealthy or not?

Personally, I think most politicians are out of touch on many issues, because they have lived a different sort of life for a very long time.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFleur

Oops...I misworded that last post. I meant to "wealthy politician is out of touch with working Americans, no matter what the party."

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFleur

Because you seem to be demanding someone else to pay for your daycare.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

I can't speak for Olivia, but from my perspective, I'm asking the government to make a smart investment in child care that has the potential to increase maternal workforce participation, reduce child poverty, and generate positive returns for the economy.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

AMEN. Well said

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Killins

Also, can you imagine fathers having this same debate? Think about it.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Killins

So well-written. I wish I lived in Canada.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Gaines

I see all ya'll's points about the gov investment, but bottom line, unless the mom is totally cracked out or has mental issues, an under 2 is better off with mom than in a group daycare setting...so I'd sooner subsidize mamas to be at home than I would childcare. I just don't think childcare for under 2s is good for kids and there's research that bears that out and I know all the femmes are going to point to some American study where poor ghetto kids in daycare had good outcomes to show that all kids do OK no matter where they're raised as babies, so I can't win this with people who just aren't interested in taking care of their own kids...

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

If we are talking about the ideal situation, I happen to agree with you. As I've written about here before, I'd love to see a maternity/parental leave program that guarantees parents can stay home for two to three years. By guarantee, I mean income supplement and job security. At the same time, I'd also like to see subsidized child care or child care tax credits available for those who want to use it or who need to use it (yes, even with two to three year leave, some would need it) both before two years old and between two years and the start of school.

Our personal choice was to keep our children home until they were three years old (we got one year of that covered by maternity/parental leave, but the other two years was on us with no job security or pay for my partner who stayed home during that period) and then put them into preschool where we could take advantage of the child care tax credits to pursue our careers / education.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

"people who just aren’t interested in taking care of their own kids"

Sigh. Of course... the SAH v WOH debate always comes down to this, doesn't it? Mothers who work out of the home somehow just aren't as good of mothers as those who stay home, that's the gist, right?

Or, there's the good ol' "someone else raising their kids" sentiment (even though it's a very rare situation where children are in daycare in one week for more time than they are with parents). Or, what about "putting kids in the care of strangers", haven't heard that yet (because of course, even though a child may be with a care provider for years, it's not mom, so, therefore: STRANGER.).

Of course, no mention of fathers, but whatevs, right? Dads don't really matter when it comes to raising kids anyway; it's all about what the MOM chooses. I can't believe there's not been mention yet of the "if you'd only make sacrifices, and not drive two SUVs" angle.

Sigh. The same arguments get so tiring. And just when you were trying to put a different spin on things, Annie.

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

MILLIONAIRE? She's a multi-hundredmillionaire. She and Mitt could put all their money in a low-interest checking account tomorrow and live like Colombian drug kings for the rest of their days on the principal alone. They are social parasites who certainly don't "work" in the sense we do.

A patrician with zero connection with the (wo)man on the street, and no ability to comprehend anything about how the 99.9% live. Who the hell cares how she raises her children, or more likely, how her army of staff raise them?

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterABM

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