I found the comment thread to this post
(written in response to this New York Times article
) very worthwhile reading. This one, in particular, struck me as important:
[W]omen will always come out on the bottom as long as we continue to be complicit in upholding this system that ties one’s personal and political power to money. Because our capitalist society systematically goes about undervaluing women and their labor, and doubly so when that labor is something traditionally coded as feminine, or women’s work.
It is true, as other commenters point out, that staying home vs. working for pay is a choice only the very privileged among us get to make. And the decision is indeed a highly personal one, which no parent needs to justify to anyone else.
But I think it is important not to lose sight of the cultural framework within which such choices are made. For example, the availability of paid parental leave or affordable child care can have a major impact on these decisions.
The value system underlying this debate is, as the quoted commenter points out, worth examining. That is, is our absolute worth really defined by our net worth?
I was lucky to be able to stay home with Ben until he was three. (I had friends who returned to work when their babies were a few weeks old. Everyone is fine. This isn't about that.) I could do this because Bill had a steady job, and we had a stable marriage (and he is a responsible person who would not have let us suffer even if the marriage had broken up, assuming he remained employed and able to work—neither condition a given.) We were saddled with graduate school debts, and ate beans and rice for dinner more often than I like to remember, but we were able to pull it off.
There was a price, though. In those three years, the field I was working in changed dramatically. I lost touch with a number of contacts. My skills became somewhat rusty, and I lost confidence in my ability to function well in my profession. And as we all know, a PhD is not the ticket out of poverty it was once thought to be.
I was lucky. A dear friend from graduate school talked me up to his employer and I got a job at the agency where he worked. If that hadn't happened I might still be doing poorly paid freelance writing and editing jobs (not downplaying how lucky I was to get those. I have friends who clean houses for about the same hourly rate, and they don't get to lie on the couch in their pajamas).
The time I was able to spend with Ben can't be measured by dollars. But dollars and privilege bought me that time, just as they can buy high quality childcare. I don't think this should have to be the case.