Moving Past the Mommy Wars: Pro-Family Policy for the Rest of Us

Published July 21, 2023

Fairer Disputations

Co-Authored with Serena Sigillito

It’s hard to pinpoint when America passed the peak of the mommy wars. Back in the early 2000s, it seemed as if you couldn’t open the morning paper, stop at a newsstand, or turn on the evening news without hearing about the conflict between working moms and their stay-at-home peers.

To readers across the pond, who are accustomed to benefits like lengthy paid parental leave, the United States’ contentious fights over even the most modest pro-family policies probably seem quite strange. In general, Democrats would be happy to emulate the United Kingdom’s social programs, from paid family leave to government-funded childcare. Republicans, though, are more wary. Their resistance stems from a variety of causes, from a libertarian-tinged commitment to small government to concerns about the encroachment of increasingly ideological government bureaucracies into the sacred realm of family life. In recent years, however, the American right has undergone a significant evolution. Although many admire Hungary more than Britain, today, an increasing number of conservative politicians and commentators are talking about pro-family and pro-natal policy.

One particularly encouraging development is a growing emphasis on how public policy can help support stay-at-home parents. Examples include the ongoing debate over a child allowance, proposals to reform entitlement programs like social security and Medicare to support parents who aren’t in the work force, and bills that explicitly aim at the “millions of working people [who] want to start a family and would like to care for their children at home.”

Such legislation is an important step toward building a more family-centered, interdependent society. But conservatives should tread with caution. Supporting parents doesn’t require opening a new front in the “mommy wars.”

We can do two things at the same time. First: we can and should elevate the essential, hidden work of the home, encouraging both men and women to embrace parenthood while acknowledging the uniquely intimate connection between mother and child. Second: we can and should build political systems that give parents the freedom to craft the arrangement that works best for their particular families. Some—perhaps even most—mothers want to share their gifts and talents with the world through some form of paid work. Policymakers should make it easier for them to do so, opening up alternative pathways to the totalizing, male-normative ideal of career progression that has dominated our culture for so long.

Full-Time Homemaking Is Valuable, But It’s Not for Everyone

As Wollstonecraft Fellow Ivana Greco pointed out at Public Discourse last week, the fact that parental caregiving doesn’t increase the GDP can lead those who are hyper-fixated on financial growth to see parents at home as a problem to be solved rather than a choice to be celebrated. This mentality is deeply misguided. On a practical level, for some families, the cost of childcare would cancel out the additional income brought in by a second working parent. Others consciously choose to make an economic sacrifice to have a parent at home. These parents—mainly women—are not “wasting their potential.” They’re caring for their children in the way they have discerned is best for their family.

Although living on one income often requires frugality and ingenuity, two-earner families actually show signs of being more financially precarious than single earner families. They tend to spend more on fixed expenses such as housing costs, and are therefore less able to adjust to a sudden decrease in earnings if one parent loses their job. By contrast, if Dad is injured or laid off, a stay-at-home mom may be able to re-enter the workplace to help make ends meet. In other words, as Elizabeth Warren put it, homemakers act as a family’s “built-in social safety net.” That’s one reason why, even on economic grounds, policies that help families who want to live on one income to do so are a smart move. In short: policymakers shouldn’t ignore or undervalue the importance of homemaking and caregiving.

On the other hand, they also shouldn’t assume that most working moms are secretly hoping they could hand in their two weeks’ notice. When it comes to work-family preferences, as the work of sociologist Catherine Hakim has demonstrated,

women are heterogeneous in values, life goals, and central priorities, being divided into three distinct groups: a minority of work-centered women, many of whom remain childless by choice (about 20 percent of the adult population); a minority of home-centered women, who often have many children and do little paid work after marriage (about 20 percent of the adult population); and a majority of ambivalent women who seek to combine paid work in the labor market with child-bearing and child-rearing (about 60 percent of the adult population).

What’s more, “The three groups espouse distinctive value systems: individual achievement and competitive values of the marketplace, family values of sharing and caring, or an ambivalent attempt to combine the two.” For decades, mainstream feminism has uncritically embraced the work-centered model, pushing all women to achieve just as much as their male counterparts, and on the same terms. Technologies like contraception and egg-freezing are touted as empowering options that will help women to find fulfillment through career success. In reality, they’re misguided and unreliable attempts to “fix” a system—namely, the female reproductive system—that’s not broken.

On a society-wide level, there’s clearly work to be done in rebalancing the work-family scale, which has tipped for so long toward career. As they do this work, though, policymakers should make room for all three groups of women: those who are work-centered, those who are home-centered, and the biggest group of all, those who fall somewhere in the messy middle.

More Women Are Working Now Than Ever Before

Although Hakim proposed her “preference theory” more than two decades ago, both opinion polls and macroeconomic data continue to validate her observations.

Last year, the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Institute for Family Studies surveyed American parents about work and family, and the results demonstrate the enduring heterogeneity of women’s attitudes toward work. Representing Hakim’s “home-centered women,” 22 percent of moms said their “ideal arrangement” was to not work at all. These are the moms whose cultural contributions would and should be recognized by policies meant to support homemakers. Still, that leaves the majority of moms, across socioeconomic backgrounds, interested in at least some paid work. Among women of all education levels, 74 percent of mothers said their ideal situation involves either part- or full-time paid work. A Pew survey in 2019 had similar findings.

New statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reinforce this same message. The share of women age 25-54 (what economists call “prime-age”) in the labor force has never been higher. In June 2023, 77.8 percent of women in that age range were either working or looking for work. That’s higher than any month on record. It’s also quite close to Hakim’s 80 percent estimation of work-centered women plus ambivalent moms.

As we can see in the chart below, fewer married moms work outside the home, compared with unmarried and childless women. Still, even married mothers have increased their workforce participation since 2015, even as the economy has improved.

A number of factors may be driving these trends. College-educated moms are benefiting from a post-Covid expansion of flexible, remote work arrangements. Whether part- or full-time, these options appeal to moms who are seeking to integrate caregiving with careers. If women leave the workforce when their children are young, it can be difficult to re-enter it later in life, and their long-term salaries will take a significant hit as a result. Knowing this, many women use the professional skills and connections they built up before becoming moms to negotiate for sustainable arrangements that let them keep a foot in the door.

Workers without a college degree have seen exceptionally strong wage growth since the pandemic. That may explain why so many moms in this category are choosing to keep working, even if flexible, remote arrangements are out of reach. These mothers are the ones who stand to benefit most from pro-woman, pro-family policies like paid maternity leave.

Our economy is still suffering from the aftermath of the highest inflation we’ve seen in decades. It’s possible that the rising cost of living is forcing some women into the labor force against their will. Even so, it’s worth noting that, even in inflation-adjusted terms, wages are now rising due to a tight labor market, and women are responding by working more, not less. This is the opposite of what we would expect if they were being forced into work by the “two-income trap.” These numbers should remind us that many moms are working not because they feel forced to, but because they want to. As Hakim might say, a majority of moms are drawn toward both the sense of individual achievement and offered by professional work and the more self-sacrificial, other-centered values cultivated within the home.

A Pro-Family Approach to Politics

These dynamics should push our political approach in a new direction. One major difference between today’s moms and those of yesteryear, after all, is that motherhood has become more self-selected. Mothers are nearly twice as likely to have at least some college education than in 1990. This is partly a function of social and economic changes—women have become less likely to have children in their teenage years or even their early twenties—and partly due to increasing numbers of women attending college in the first place.

These two factors—delayed childbearing and increased educational attainment—have increased the opportunity cost of not working. As Harvard’s Claudia Goldin points out in her book Career and Family, a certain segment of elite women had always pursued a career, often at the expense of having a family. Now, across the socioeconomic spectrum, increasing numbers of women are trying, in their own way, to cultivate their talents through a professional vocation while also embracing the messy, exhausting, but deeply joyful experience of motherhood.

It’s important to point out the tradeoffs and negative consequences of an economic and cultural model that encourages career advancement at the expense of childbearing. But a political approach based on a misread of economic data and parental preferences will make it harder, not easier, to create a truly pro-family society.

Today, “having it all” looks very different than either side in the early 2000s mommy wars could have imagined. Likewise, a modern pro-family approach to politics must look different than the rhetoric and approach of generations past. Acknowledging that a record number of women are working not because they have to, economically, but because they want to, can help a pro-family politics appeal to parents across the political spectrum.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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