For the poor, child-raising not `real' job

May 23, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Do you remember when it was dangerous to describe a mother at home as "not working"? The original card-carrying members of the 24/7 work world rebelled at being publicly treated as if child-raising was doing nothing.

You still risk bodily harm if you turn to the mother of two at a suburban dinner party and ask, "What do you do?" If one mom at soccer practice inquires whether another has a job, she's likely to start another cycle in the mommy wars.

The only politically correct slogan is: "Every mother is a working mother."

Well, guess what? The jig is up. The last flimsy pretense has been stripped away in the renewed debate over welfare reform. The notion that child-raising is a socially approved job is a con game. Con as in conservative.

Anyone who listened to the language surrounding the welfare reauthorization bill knows that poor and single mothers are not described as "stay-at-home moms." They are not lauded as women doing "the hardest job in the world."

Welfare mothers are, rather, women who need to discover the "dignity and self-worth" that come from real jobs. Their children don't need them at home; they need them in the workplace as "role models."

The Republican majority boasts that the welfare reform bill that just passed the House of Representatives is "tough on work." The bill headed to the Senate expects states to move 70 percent of the remaining welfare recipients into work. It also raises the number of hours welfare mothers are supposed to be out of the house "doing something" -- working, studying, training -- from 30 to 40 hours.

President Bush has put his stamp of approval on this tough approach to the tough cases. At a Chicago event that featured two moms telling their welfare-to-work success stories, he listened to a mother of nine declare, "I'm proud of myself. I'd never worked a day in my life."

The compassionate conservative replied in amazement: "For a person who has never worked a day in her life ... you're one articulate soul." Imagine the president saying that to his mother. Or to his wife, who left her library job for home.

Political correctness, it appears, only applies to the economically correct. We value mothering when the family has a paycheck-earning father. We devalue it as rapidly as a dot-com stock when she is single and poor.

Now, let me say that I worked outside my home throughout motherhood. I think the balance of work and family is as rewarding as it is stressful. I supported the idea behind welfare-to-work programs. And still do.

But we have never offered the social support to make working motherhood, well, work. The next wave of mothers entering the work force will share the search for child care. With only the paltry new funding in the House bill, these women will join the waiting lists for day care in 20 states. Their kids will join more than 7 million children under 12 in what is euphemistically called "self care."

Do we promote work without worry because even the most family-values politicians think mothers at home do nothing? Or just poor mothers? Does the most compassionate conservative believe kids can raise themselves? Or just poor kids?

It's the senators' turn to show just how "tough" they can be. It's their turn to decide if mothers on welfare have to "work" a 40-hour week. It's their turn to decide if 70 percent of these mothers must enter the work force in this frighteningly tight economy and without assurance of child care.

Motherhood has been the center of a culture war instead of an economic policy debate. We are forever reading approving articles about women leaving high-powered, high-paying jobs to be at home. We are forever reading approving articles about poor women leaving welfare to go to work. The mommy wars have women pointing at each other instead of the problem.

Now the "tough" politicians think we can move women into the workplace without answering the question -- who will take care of the children? This is, at heart, a profound dismissal of motherhood. And, of course, childhood.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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