I came to this motherhood business late, after my friends’ children were all off to college. My energy, heaven knows, is limited but my resources more plentiful than they would have been had I adopted a child 20 years ago rather than three years ago.
After a long career in the newspaper business — and months into my second career as a college professor — I’m able to afford in-home child care, a blessed relief. My life is less harried than that of many mothers.
So I know what Democratic operative Hilary Rosen meant when she commented, dismissively, on Ann Romney’s role as a stay-at-home mother. The wife of the likely GOP presidential nominee “has actually never worked a day in her life,” Rosen said last week on CNN.
That was a dumb remark. Of course Ann Romney has worked. She’s the mother of five sons.
(Rosen later apologized for her “poorly chosen” words, but not before her remarks had provoked a backlash that revealed more about the nation’s continuing cultural divide than anything Rosen, who is openly gay and a mother of two, said. Catholic League president Bill Donohue, for example, tweeted dismissively about Rosen’s status as an adoptive mother. I would demand his apology, but I’m too busy trying to finish this column before my 3-year-old storms into the room.)
But Romney nevertheless had a huge advantage over mothers with less money: She could hire help. She could engage baby sitters, nannies, cooks and housecleaners.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t find her days filled with managing schedules, overseeing homework, buying new sneakers and, yes, even wiping snotty noses. With five kids, she probably never had enough help around to avoid that duty.
Still, Romney’s experience of motherhood is significantly different from that of moms around the country whose family incomes hover at the median of $50,000 a year. My resources don’t compare to those of the Romney family; I’m merely a comfortable member of the middle class, not a rich 1-percenter. And even I understand that my status as a longtime salaried professional has enabled me to escape the harried life of moms who rouse their children early for the ride to the day care center; who can’t attend PTA meetings unless they can pay for a baby sitter; who do all the cooking, housecleaning and shopping in addition to wiping dirty noses.
However clumsily and contemptuously Rosen brought up that divide, that’s clearly what she intended, as the rest of her commentary makes clear: “(Ann Romney) has never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing, in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and why do we worry about their future.”
But that was lost in the pitched debate over the merits of stay-at-home motherhood, as if that’s still a deep cultural fissure. First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted, “Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.” Barbara Bush weighed in with, “I’m sorry she took a knock at us who chose — or were able to — stay home and take care of our children.”
At least Bush tempered her comments with “were able to.” Most women with school-age children work these days because they have little choice. As wages stagnated over the last 30 years, women entered the workplace in huge numbers so that family income didn’t drop precipitously.
That’s especially true for workers without college degrees. Of those women I know who’ve chosen to stay at home with their children, all were college-educated professionals whose husbands were also well-educated and well-compensated. Even Rosen, who has long plied Washington’s power corridors, was being a bit disingenuous when she spoke of herself as among those mothers who worry about “how we feed our kids.” Unlikely.
The real divide is between those mothers with college degrees and those without, those who pay for pricey schools and tutors and camps and those who can’t — whether they work at home or on Wall Street. Neither the shrill nor the silly rhetoric of the political season will change that.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)