The rate of women’s participation in the labor force is one measure policymakers keep in mind when crafting work-family policy. Indeed, a recent OECD report identified stay-at-home moms as “the greatest untapped potential” in Australia’s workforce and worried about potential “large losses to the economy” because of mothers’ decisions to stay home or work part-time. But before making an increase in women’s labor force participation a primary policy goal, it is important to consider women’s disproportionate share in the work of child and elder care, as well as in civil society institutions like places of worship and PTOs.
Child and Elder Care
As I write, my eight-month-old kicks in the Baby Bjorn, cooing and squealing and buzzing his lips until a spot of drool coalesces on my shirt. I’m thankful for part-time work that allows me to be at home with my three children. I often think to myself, how many people are lucky enough to be able to do paid work while holding their babies?
But the truth is, as romantic as it sounds to write while holding a snuggly little one, I have discovered over the past five years of simultaneously working and having three children (ages five and under) that I really can’t get writing done with the children awake unless I have some form of childcare. In theory, I could work when they are napping or in bed for the night, but when they are asleep, it’s hard for me to stay awake—the physicality of caring for the kids leaves me delighted but exhausted.
Taking care of children is a full-time job, whether you are a paid nanny or daycare worker or unpaid mom. The kind of thinking that discounts taking care of one’s own children as work because there is no paycheck involved seems highly arbitrary, and does not account for the valuable work many women are doing outside of the workforce.
This seems especially true given the growing body of research on attachment, which shows that the work of motherhood is critical during the early years. During an AEI panel discussion on work-family policy last month (of which my husband David and I took part), sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox noted that there is evidence that we “should at least be somewhat careful or concerned about the impact of extensive childcare on kids, particularly in the first year of life.” He pointed to the work of Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, who found: “Children do tend to do worse if their mothers work full-time in their first year of life.” There are “negative effects found on health, cognitive development, and externalizing behavior problems.”
Given this, some have argued that the way we measure economic growth is flawed. Feminists, in particular, have made the case that measures like the GDP undervalue women’s contributions to individual and societal well-being by only measuring marketed activities, and ignoring unpaid work like child and elder care and volunteering. In other words, women’s participation in the formal labor force may not be an accurate indicator of human wellbeing, particularly given the actual preferences of mothers of young children for part-time (as opposed to full-time) work.
Civil Society Participation
We also know that women who choose not to participate in the workforce are more likely than men to “do civil society”—the kind of volunteering and community-building that can make a big difference in a neighborhood.
This became real to me one sunny winter afternoon when I was helping my grandparents go through boxes of belongings as they prepared to move into an assisted living facility. When I removed the lid from a white cardboard Macy’s box—the kind that might have held a dress shirt and tie gifted to Grandpa for his birthday—I was hit with the smell of must. Inside, I found papers and booklets—old magazines, newspaper clippings, church bulletins—browned with time and brittle. But most interesting was the pile of handmade programs for the Mother-Daughter luncheon my Grandma and her friends organized each year.
The programs were made of colorful construction paper and cleverly cut into a variety of shapes—a chef’s hat and rolling pin, sewing patterns, flowers—and I found programs spanning two decades from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Time and love and creativity went into planning those luncheons, which my mother remembers to this day. Despite being a busy farmer’s wife whose work was essential to the functioning of the farm, my grandma also served as president of her church’s Women’s Missionary Fellowship, which, in addition to Scripture memory and Bible study, encouraged “active Christian service.” Every fourth Tuesday, the women took turns visiting the elderly, and they corresponded with foreign missionaries, remembering their birthdays and praying for them daily.
As Emma Green notes in her Atlantic essay “What America Lost as Women Entered the Workforce,” civil society institutions were often built on the voluntary labor of women. One of the trade-offs of women’s formal participation in the labor force is that there is less time for this kind of civil society work. This year, I undertook, along with three other moms, the implementation of a new religious education program at our parish. It has been an enormously fulfilling experience, but also a lot of work! One of the moms commented that she was putting in almost as many hours as she did when she was employed part-time. Though she had dropped out of the labor market, she was filling that newly freed time with things that added meaning and value to her family and community.
That is not to say that all mothers should stay at home full-time, or that we as a society should not value women’s participation in the workforce. Indeed, creating a work environment hospitable to working mothers (thereby increasing women’s labor force participation) can be a means of fighting poverty, as economist Angela Rachidi suggests.
But attempting to increase women’s labor force participation without grappling with the realities of unpaid caregiving and community work could have the unintended consequence of weakening both the family and civil society. Any effort to encourage women to enter the workforce must also work to create truly “family-friendly jobs” as opposed to simply engineering “job-friendly families,” as Richard Reeves so eloquently put it in the same AEI panel mentioned above. As Reeves explained,
We leave work essentially unreformed and then we have long hours of childcare. We expect women to work as….‘quasi-men’ and what we end up doing is short-changing our kids. I don’t think the point of any of the changes in recent decades has been that we all work full-time and have our kids being farmed out to somebody else.
We may also need to transform our way of measuring societal success. GDP and formal labor force participation are helpful markers in some respects, but should not be the sole driving force behind work-family policies. Qualitative work with families reveals how insufficient these measures are—for they fail to capture the stresses associated with juggling the demands of both family and work. Neither do they recognize the trade-offs in family and civic life that occur when women enter the workforce.
In order to most fully address the growing inequalities in American society, we must focus on policies that strengthen the workforce, yes, but that do so without weakening the mother-child bond and civil society. Cases in which there is tension between these goals, as there seems to be when it comes to women’s labor force participation, require great care. Americans historically have had a knack for responding to societal problems with civic organizing. Let us not, by overemphasizing the labor market, underestimate the power of ordinary people coming together to do seemingly ordinary things.
Amber Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.