There has been much political uproar lately about a comment made by someone named Hilary Rosen about Ann Romney. (You can read more about it HERE if you want.) As I am thoroughly sick of politics and find, frankly, that both sides (Democrat and Republican) come across hollow, the fact that I am blogging about this at all speaks volumes to how it impacted me.
Ms. Rosen stated that Ms. Romney (who has been a stay-at-home mom) has "never actually worked a day in her life," and that as such she is unable to offer her husband advice about women's economic issues.
This idea both offended me and, I confess, made me nod my head just a little bit in agreement. But first I have to explain why.
While I always yearned to be a stay-at-home mom, I never actually managed to do so for very long. I went back to work eight weeks after Haley was born because at that point we still needed my income to cover our bills. But a few months later, Kendell switched departments and got a raise, and I was laid off and got a severance package, both of which combined to mean that I could choose, finally, to stay at home with my sweet baby girl.
Which I did until May, just after she turned one. You see, being laid off meant I could qualify for a job-retraining grant. I could go back to school and it would be paid for. And as much as I longed to be a stay-at-home mom, I also still wanted to accomplish my long-held goal of graduating from college. Did being a student and not working at a job mean I was a stay-at-home mom? Only sort of. I found an in-home daycare where Haley was happy while I went to my classes during the day. I scheduled them as tightly as possible so that I could be at home as much as possible. Nearly all my homework I did in the late evenings after she went to bed.
During the 2 1/2 years it took me to finish my degree, I got pregnant with Jake, had him, took a semester off, went back for my last year, and got pregnant with Nathan during my last semester (you know...the one I took 21 credits so I could finish before my grant ended). I tried not to ask anyone for help, not my husband or my mom or my sisters or my friends. After all, I had chosen to work on my degree. I had a gut-deep certainty that we would all be glad I was doing it and blessed by my efforts, but I also did it because *I* wanted to learn. By the time I was done, I was proud—but tired. Tired of juggling. Tired of late nights. Tired of having to say "maybe tomorrow" because I had to balance taking care of the house and the laundry and the meals with my children's needs and my homework.
I was so, so happy to be a stay-at-home mom! I loved everything about it, even the six-week stretch of chicken pox just before Christmas.
Except, my happiness only lasted for about 18 months, because just before Nathan turned one our world got dumped upside down when Kendell was laid off. During the next 15 months, I was still a stay-at-home mom. But those were dark, dark days and finally, when I was simply too desperate to keep going along like we were, I decided to go back to school so I could get my teaching certificate.
I think I bawled on the drive to school every day for an entire month.
And it was even worse for me when I started teaching. In my heart of hearts, what I wanted the most was to stay at home with my little ones. What my life was forcing me to do was to leave them in order to provide for them. It made me bitter and sad and confused. All of my other friends, whose husbands had never been laid off, got to continue being stay-at-home moms. They also did things like go shopping together for new boots, or get their hair colored, or buy new purses.
It didn't seem fair.
One night during the first year I was teaching, I was riding back home with three of these friends after we had all played Bunco together. Somehow the talk turned to the fact that schools in places with higher incomes are much better equipped than schools in places with lower incomes. To me, this seemed patently wrong. Why should a person's income affect his or her education? Shouldn't everyone be given the same educational opportunities when we have a publically funded education system?
No! one of my friends emphatically said. People with large incomes have lots of money because of the choices they made. They chose to get educations and careers in high-paying industries, but those with lower incomes? Well, that was their fault based, also, on the choices they made. The lower-income kids didn't deserve as high-quality of schools as the high-income kids because of the choices their parents made. And, of course, because the higher-income adults paid more taxes, their children deserved a better education and seriously: if the poor people would just stop having so many kids, they'd be better off anyway.
As you can imagine, this discussion sent me for a tailspin. There I was, working as hard as I could to provide for my kids and to educate some of those high-income kids. Choosing to do so. But what I wanted to chose was something completely different. I still wanted to choose to be a stay-at-home mom, but I couldn't.
(I dropped out of that Bunco group a couple of weeks later. It was just too hard to continue feeling like the group's token white trash member.)
I continue to think a lot about choice since that night, and how it influenced who I became. If Kendell had chosen a different career, we would have different financial opportunities. If I had chosen a different degree, I could make much more money than I do as a teacher or a librarian. If I had chosen to just have one or two kids, they would have different options as well.
But that is assuming that everything in my life was a choice, and while I think I have been fairly blessed with opportunities, I know other people are not. What if my parents hadn't prized education and good grades? What if I hadn't had that talk one random Saturday afternoon with my dad, who was a steel worker with a high school diploma, about how badly he hoped I'd go to college? What if I hadn't made the choices I did to turn my messed-up life around?
And this is why I am taking the sides of both Hilary and Ann. On the one hand, Hilary is an idiot if she thinks that being a stay-at-home mom isn't work. It is. It is hard to have small children as your constant companions. As much as I loved it, I also can't sugar-coat its difficulties. It is, I believe, a selfless choice, if you have the financial means to make it. And to say that a woman who is a stay-at-home mom is unable to learn about financial and economic issues is just downright condescending. Just because a woman doesn't have a career doesn't automatically mean that she isn't able to study, learn, and devise solutions.
On the other hand, Hilary is sort-of right about Ann. Not in the working department, but in the real-life department. She's been blessed with a husband who, through his choices and his opportunities, has always been wealthy. She hasn't felt how it feels to drive away leaving your tiny baby in someone else's care. She hasn't cried out to God asking him why he wouldn't give her that one righteous desire of her heart. She hasn't stood by in bitterness while it seemed everyone else was given the one thing she most desperately wanted. Well, that and expensive boots and fancy haircuts and more purses than one woman could logically ever need.
She might be able to have knowledge about the economic plights of women. She might sympathize with them. But Ann Romney will never be able to have empathy for them and that is, I think, what Hilary Rosen is getting at.
Of course, the more basic problem is this: when we spend time Twitter-bashing each other over our life choices and situations, we are wasting time at finding a real solution. It is also in the assumption that one side or the other (how old is the stay-at-home mom vs. work-outside-the-home mom battle anyway?) has all the answers. We all have to figure it out together, if it really even is possible to figure it out at all. We don't live in a perfect world and nothing is ever going to be completely fair. But drawing lines and taking sides and being rude to each other simply fails every single one of us women. And the generations that will coome after us.