- We have a unique opportunity to remove the stigmatization of a woman’s choice to prioritize caregiving over personal career advancement, and to recognize the work of caregiving as an equally valuable pursuit. Tweet This
- Ultimately, the bonds I formed with my parents and children have defined my sense of self more than any lines on my resume. Tweet This
- Perhaps we can admit that stepping out of the workforce to fulfill caregiving responsibilities is as much a contribution to our collective humanity as an uninterrupted climb up the career ladder. Tweet This
“Well, I guess we wasted our money on you,” my graduate school professor retorted when I let it slip that if I were to have children, I would consider stepping away from my career to raise them.
Years later, after the birth of my first child, I did indeed hand in my resignation letter and become a stay-at-home caregiver. I say “caregiver” instead of “mother” because only a few months into my first pregnancy, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Shortly after she died, my father’s health problems began. An only child, I found myself navigating new motherhood and eldercare simultaneously.
While the directness of my professor’s comment may have been unusual, his view is not. When I made my choice, both women and men in my life began playing a feminist soundtrack, urging me not to choose my caregiving responsibilities over my career. Track one: You’re a Traitor to the Cause. Track two: Be a Role Model. Track three: It’s Career Suicide. Press play and repeat.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across our nation, our rickety national care infrastructure started to collapse, and the rusty bolts holding the pieces together snapped. Given this collective experience, we have a unique opportunity to rewrite this feminist soundtrack, to remove the stigmatization of a woman’s choice to prioritize caregiving over personal career advancement, and to recognize the work of caregiving as an equally valuable pursuit.
“You’re a Traitor to the Cause”
There is a naïve assumption that equates my role today with the stereotype of a 1950s housewife. High-powered, successful women, like the late Elizabeth Wurtzel, pepper the mainstream media with claims that “being a mother isn’t a real job.” Today’s feminists should rest assured that my current role contains none of the oppression that may have been a part of womanhood in the 1950s, nor do I gauge my worth through the lens of manhood. I will be eternally grateful to those trailblazers who fought for women’s rights and equality. My decision to be at home is not an assault on those hard-earned rights, but a commitment to very real and present needs.
What has not changed between the 1950s and today is that our most vulnerable still need someone to care for them. With the exception of those lucky enough to have help from family, going to work necessitates paying others to help take care of our loved ones. The ugly underside of this feminist soundtrack is that while (educated, wealthy, white) women go to work, they leave their caregiving responsibilities to other (uneducated, poor, often minority) women (who cannot always afford proper care for their own families). The work exists; the work is necessary; and women are doing it.
Ai-jen Poo, cofounder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations, as well as MacArthur Award-winning economist Nancy Folbre, have long recognized this crisis of our “human infrastructure,” a phrasing credited to Poo. The Build Back Better Act—despite its imperfections and potentially grim future—is if nothing else symbolic of the fact that Washington has finally recognized the dilapidated state of this infrastructure.
Nevertheless, even within these discussions, the premise is that caregiving should be outsourced. Elliot Haspel acknowledges that BBB is “silent on stay-at-home parents.” This silence ignores two truths: one, there are women who want to provide care, and two, for some women, outsourcing their caregiving responsibilities may actually cost as much, if not more, than their salary would provide.
There persists a fear within the feminist soundtrack that including a woman in the care infrastructure of her own family will conjure up the outdated cry of “a woman’s place is in the home.” This has now been replaced with the equally exclusive rallying cry of “a woman’s place is in the workforce.” Having learned from the pandemic, we should admit that we can recognize these female at-home caregivers as a crucial part of our human infrastructure without smothering ourselves with the blanket statement that women belong at home.
“Be a Role Model”
I have a daughter and a son, so I also have heard the argument that my staying home sets a poor example for both genders. This line of thinking strips motherhood of its purpose and elevates professional achievement as the only type of success.
Feminist journalist Jill Filipovic argues that women working outside the home results in “daughters who are more likely to be employed and boys who grow into more involved fathers.” Filipovic cites a prominent study finding that grown sons raised by working mothers spend an additional 50 minutes per week on care, and that daughters of working mothers grow up to be 1.29 times more likely to supervise others, spend an additional 44 minutes at work per week, and have higher earnings than their peers who grew up with mothers at home.
These superior sons who spend more time on caregiving, according to the study, also tend to marry women who work. In tandem, the results seem obvious: if both parents are working, it is more likely that a father will need to pitch in around the house. Those extra 50 minutes of care might be a reflection of practicality, not necessarily superior fatherhood. As for the daughters, the implication here is that daughters of working mothers are more successful. But is this the right way to measure success, as if we can quantify the quality of a human being? I grew up with a stay-at-home mother, and I supervise zero adults, spend zero minutes at the office, and earn zero dollars. But I was present for every one of my children’s firsts—and for my mother’s and father’s lasts.
What if instead of professional achievement, success was calculated by a contribution to a (or perhaps the) larger human mission? Raising children to be capable, kind, educated adults has the greater purpose of improving the world for all of us. A branch of epigenetics studies the effect of young children’s caregivers on their futures. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child concludes that early childhood experiences “cause epigenetic adaptations that influence whether, when, and how genes release their instructions for building future capacity for health, skills, and resilience.” Professor Robert Winston of the Imperial College London cites an estimation that young children’s brains form 700-1000 synapse connections per second, and their experiences with their caregivers “are crucial to this early wiring and pruning.”
When my mother passed away, a childhood friend with whom I had not spoken in years reached out to me. A self-described latchkey kid whose mother was a successful politician, she admitted that growing up, she always envied me for having a mother who picked me up from school and took time to know my friends. She even confessed that she would use my mother as her example when raising her own children.
In response to those who question what kind of example a stay-at-home mother may be setting, it seems like the answer is a pretty good one.
Having learned from the pandemic, we should admit that we can recognize female at-home caregivers as a crucial part of our human infrastructure without smothering ourselves with the blanket statement that women belong at home.
“It’s Career Suicide”
While it is self-evident that choosing care interrupts a career path, making the choice of care over career at a particular point in life does not mean caregivers are incapable of returning to the workforce one day.
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter published the groundbreaking article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic. Slaughter argued for a change in the ladder or upward slope analogies so often used when talking about career progression and suggested the imagery of “irregular stair steps.” Ten years and one pandemic later, we are still struggling to kick away the ladders.
Just as someone who champions the merits of her chosen profession certainly does not think that everyone should choose the same field, defending my own choice does not mean that I think my neighbor is obligated to make the same one. The majority of mothers are in the workforce, and accordingly, the national attention involving care focuses on how we make the intense years of caregiving and work simultaneously compatible. The Better Life Lab, a program of New America (of which Slaughter is CEO), as well as the research work of economist Heather Boushey, dive deeply into practical solutions to harmonize care and career.
To prioritize care over career, however, is a choice that is often left out of the discussion.
Sarrah Le Marquand, Editor-in-Chief of Australia’s Stellar magazine, argues that once a child reaches school-age, parents should be legally required to work. Her proposal is in response to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) warning that Australia’s low employment rate for women could negatively impact the economy, and their suggestion that stay-at-home mothers have great potential to contribute to the labor force.
Unlike Le Marquand and the OECD, I believe that caregivers are contributing in constructive and necessary ways. If one were still unconvinced of the economic value of domestic labor, the pandemic has revealed that a prerequisite of a thriving economy is the care of our most vulnerable. Like Le Marquand and the OECD, though, I do agree that stay-at-home mothers are a population with undeniable talent, educational degrees, and prior work experience.
Surprisingly, it has been corporate America that has carved out a place for women who have left the workforce for extended periods of time. JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and Goldman Sachs have all launched Return to Work programs. They recognize that these women have not let their minds atrophy, but rather are capable, trained, and talented potential employees.
Perhaps we can admit that our society’s ability to function relies on the care of our most vulnerable and stepping out of the workforce to fulfill caregiving responsibilities is as much a contribution to our collective humanity as an uninterrupted climb up the career ladder.
While these examples have made progress, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that within the current professional climate, there is a possibility that some women might be unable to return to the workforce at the level they desire. And what then?
In response to the pandemic, The New York Times ran a feature on the pandemic child care crisis, with multiple subheadings beginning with the phrase “Loss of—”. And “loss” is certainly an appropriate pandemic term. Although at-home caregivers span every economic class and ethnic culture, for those pushed out of the workforce unwillingly, the financial damage is a loss that is real, tangible, and potentially devastating. But associating the word “loss” with caregiving suggests that motherhood precipitates a death of self. The answer to the question “what then?” seems to be a worst-case scenario that a woman’s very identity disappears.
I admit that early on there were some days that I struggled to manage the intensity of my caregiving responsibilities. But at some point in the midst of doctor appointments, breastfeeding schedules, medication lists, and crayon artwork, I realized that the gain others were experiencing in their professional lives, I was discovering at home with my family. Ultimately, the bonds I formed with my parents and children have defined my sense of self more than any lines on my resume.
A New Soundtrack
I've watched my young child, tottering on her still unsteady legs, turn around to scan the room, anxiously searching for the reassuring nod that says, “I’m here, and I’m with you.” Sometimes, I would catch that same nervous flicker in my parents’ eyes as I sat bedside in a hospital room. Just as the child must set off on her own across the room, so, too, do we all have to confront death alone. But the presence of those in the room matters, and that comforting nod encapsulates the purpose of caregiving: “I’m here, and I’m with you.”
As we begin to emerge from the rubble of the pandemic, I hope that we can write a new feminist soundtrack that does not stigmatize caregiving. Perhaps we can admit that our society’s ability to function relies on the care of our most vulnerable and stepping out of the workforce to fulfill caregiving responsibilities is as much a contribution to our collective humanity as an uninterrupted climb up the career ladder.
J. Taylor Calderone is a writer focusing on issues involving family, motherhood, and caregiving.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.