Mothers Who Care Too Much

Ndf_35.4_mothers Over at the Boston Review, a debate: Nancy J. Hirschmann makes the case for the proposition that “Stay-at-home mothering is bad for mothers, their kids, and women’s equality.” Shannon Hayes, Ann Friedman, and Lane Kenworthy respond. (Other responses to come.) Hirschmann:

Since 1986 I have been teaching “Introduction to Feminist Political Thought.” In 2003 something unusual happened in the course. In each of the first five classes, my students initiated a discussion of mothering.

Surprised by this development, I asked the students if they expected to have children. Every woman’s hand went up, but the men thought I was crazy. When I asked how many of the women expected to be stay-at-home mothers, three-quarters raised their hands. Mothering, they said, is the most important job anyone could do. They wanted other options available, but they planned to choose mothering. This pattern has held, more or less, in subsequent years.

Some feminists will cheer this development. Significant trends within feminism, grouped under the label of care feminism, have long emphasized the socially important work that women do rearing children. I have pursued such arguments in my own work but lately I have grown worried that feminists such as me have exaggerated the importance of care, ignored the inadequate ways in which it is often performed. We have failed to acknowledge that the louder we applaud it, the more we enable its perversion.

We hear a lot about the evils of working mothers, how they are too busy or selfish to pay attention to their children. And everyone loves to pile on rich men’s wives who are obsessed with getting their children into the right preschool yet consign them to the care of nannies. But we don’t often talk—either within the academy or outside of it—about the comparable failings of full-time mothering, about the women like Susan’s and Anthony’s mothers who devote their lives to caring for their families, while producing outcomes that arguably undermine such basic political values as freedom, equality, and engaged citizenship.

The students in my feminist theory course are a useful barometer. When they read about the financial and economic vulnerability of married stay-at-home moms, they are skeptical: good mothers, they say, devote themselves to caring for their children; and their husbands should support them; they’re a team. Yet when they read about women on public assistance— often single mothers—they argue that the women should work, and they excoriate them for being bad mothers who set a poor example for their children by not working for a wage, and, implicitly, for not hanging on to their husbands.

Their lack of empathy and identification is both breathtaking and remarkably consistent.