The two-income family is one area in which I received no helpful advice while growing up. I was born in the mid-1960s, raised by a stay-at-home mom and working dad, watched The Brady Bunch on TV and discovered feminism in college. I have always wanted a career, a family, and a house (one, not two...) and never really thought about the time, the money or the hours in the day necessary to make it all work.
Staying home with the kids? It wasn’t an option for me. When my children were born I was the one with the tenure-track job, so my husband stayed home (since he needed to finish his dissertation). We could not afford day care costs on my salary, and my (soon to be ex-) husband found it impossible to finish a dissertation with two children under the age of three running around.
Talk about pressure and misunderstandings… As much as my ex and I like to think that we are a product of the postmodern political generation, we both maintained damaging stereotypes about work, parenting, and gender: I never should have commuted to work and left him home with the children. He should have finished his dissertation and earned as much money as I did.
Many of you know elements of this story already. Aeron Haynie reminded me of Judith Warner who analyzes in her columns and books how our consumer-driven society has created a cult of competitive “hyper-parents”--paranoid moms and dads who worry that their children will be “left behind” some mysterious achievement rope, and are running themselves ragged trying to cross it. As Aeron discussed last week, the commitment to university teaching is not generally about a Suze Orman-type interest in acquiring ‘big money’ (unless you want to study how it works). What has become clear to me in the last two decades is that the two-income family has some mythical qualities to it that need to be more effectively deconstructed, particularly in the media, but also in universities.
First, we need to have a broad, political discussion asserting that the two-income family is not working for many people. This economy, our government, and our own illusions have failed us. Yes, women have fought their ways through many glass ceilings and are allowed to dream about ambitious careers and new identities in unprecedented numbers. But women are just starting to figure out that we’ve been trumped by the economy. For most of us, supporting a house with children requires two incomes now. In addition to the complexities of managing two adults with full time careers, raising young children and maintaining a home is difficult. (I won’t even approach the single parent challenges...).
Acknowledging these challenges does not mean that women do not have to work as much because they are the ‘natural’ caregivers, but it does mean that giving both parents better choices about parental leaves should be federal law. The United States is shockingly behind the rest of the world on maternity/parental leave compensation. I was shocked by exactly how far we are... (We line up with Lesotho.)
Second, we need to inject Elizabeth Warren's research more fully into the mainstream media. Warren, author of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke and the new leader of the Congressional Oversight commission for the 700 billion dollar stimulus program (TARP), greeted me on Charlie Rose the other night. Warren is an endowed Harvard law professor (2 children, divorced, remarried) who has written several national bestsellers and maintained successful blogs on law, politics and the economy with the Warren Reports, Talking Points Memo, and The Huffington Post.
I listened to Warren describe how, since the 1980s, families with children have endured a 100% increase in housing costs, while increases in wages have not kept up with inflationary costs. In real wages, two-income families do not make any more than single-income families made in the 1970s. Warren understands that the fault lines of the economic crisis — the foreclosures, the bankruptcies, the credit defaults -- are primarily the result of families who cannot afford to survive in today’s inflated marketplace. Many of us were quickly approved for those 1st and 2nd mortgages that few of us could safely afford. Our big houses and empty savings accounts are not prepared to handle a crisis that carries big financial repercussions with it--e.g. divorce, medical issues, job losses.
We all know that the economy will take years to improve. Housing costs may drop a bit, but wages have frozen at universities and endowments have dropped precipitously. So why aren’t more U.S. academics standing up and yelling, “This isn’t working for us!” or “We need government-subsidized child care from 12 weeks on if you want both parents to work!”?
Other countries (the more 'socialist' ones...) do it differently. In France, for instance, besides a mandatory maternity leave of 16-26 weeks at 100% compensation, the country offers subsidized public day care and a guarantee for re-employment if either parent leaves work until the child turns 3. The silence on these issues in the U.S. media is disturbing (but not surprising). Its neglect by the academy should be embarrassing. Let’s make better parental leave a part of the national health care discussions.