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No winners in mummy wars debate

Date

Economics Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Jessica’s first book Zombies, Bananas and Why There Are No Economists in Heaven is available as an ebook and in hard copy

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<em>Illustration: John Shakespeare</em>

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Forget The Hunger Games. A much more brutal and devastating battle is raging - the mummy wars. In one corner, the layabout, soap opera-obsessed stay-at-home mum, or SAHM. In the other, the negligent, money-obsessed working mum. Only one mother can win - by tearing shreds off her opponents and generally out-bitching the other.

The prize? Moral superiority as the best kind of mother, woman and human being.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe, but there's an ugly grain of truth in there. What working woman hasn't secretly begrudged the SAHM their easier workload? What SAHM hasn't secretly thought working mums neglect the needs of their kids? We women can be pretty hard on each other, almost as hard as we are on ourselves.

A fresh round of the mummy wars broke out in the US last week, when a former lobbyist turned Democratic talking head, Hilary Rosen, said the wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had no basis on which to advise her husband on economic issues because she'd ''never worked a day in her life''.

Ann Romney opened a Twitter account to complain: ''I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.''

And so the old catfight was out of the bag again, attracting a stream of online commentary, a prompt intervention by Barack Obama saying the work choices of candidate spouses were irrelevant and an apology from Rosen.

The mummy wars are obviously a simplification. And not just because the concept ignores the bulk of mothers who contort themselves on a daily basis to juggle family and work. It also assumes that women alone are responsible for their decisions and that they do so based on their innate preference for work or child rearing.

In reality, for many mothers, the decision whether to work is purely a financial one. And it is not a decision they make alone - excluding single mothers - but a negotiated outcome between partners in a relationship.

We need to think about families not as a homogenous unit but as a collection of individuals, who can be deployed in various ways to maximise the wellbeing of the family.

In the same way that economies get rich when individuals specialise in what they are best at and then trade, families are better off when their members specialise where they have a comparative advantage.

Traditionally, men have earned more money selling their labour in the market, so it made sense for them to do so and for women to stay at home to look after the children.

For many women in partnerships formed decades ago when women typically did not go to university and were expected to work as secretaries, teachers and nurses, it made financial sense for the woman to devote her labour to domestic duties, rather than paid work.

For their generation, the Romneys probably made the best economic decision they could - with Ann looking after the children while Mitt sold his labour as a management consultant, eventually co-founding a private equity investment company, Bain Capital, which remains a source of wealth for the couple.

But for couples making the decision today about who should bear primary responsibility for domestic duties, the landscape has changed dramatically.

Today's cohort of young women have more than proved their equal ability to earn degrees and hold high-powered positions.

According to figures from Graduate Careers Australia, women make up 64 per cent of university graduates (but only 34 per cent of apprentices and trainees).

Male graduates continue to earn marginally more than female graduates, on median starting salaries of $52,000 versus $50,000 last year.

But at 96 per cent, today's female graduate earnings are fairly close, compared with a wider overall gender ratio of about 82 per cent.

Something happens to women and their salaries when they enter their 30s and that something is children.

Couples today need to - and are - making more active decisions about who will take time out of the paid workforce to look after their children. Couples must consider which partner has the higher earning capacity and whose career progression and future earning capacity will be most negatively affected by taking time out.

In a sense, because many couples are delaying childbirth until their 30s, partners have had almost a decade to establish themselves in their chosen careers and are in a better position to decide who has the highest skills and career prospects.

Because the market value of women's time has risen so dramatically, it is more likely than in the past that couples will decide to deploy the male partner to domestic duties and keep the woman's salary.

The economics of the family are evolving and where gender policies and quotas fail to deliver, the profit motive will out.

It will take time. It requires governments to keep working to remove tax traps that keep women at home because they would lose more in welfare benefits and tax than they would earn. It ideally requires greater attention to the provision of high-quality and cheap childcare to help in the household production of that most private of public goods - children.

Public debates about the choices families make about which partner will bear the burden of childcare should have the emotion taken out of them.

The perception of mummy wars only plays into the stereotype of women as emotion-driven creatures who are out to get one another. This perception perpetuates one of the most dangerous stereotypes for all mothers - that they are forever transformed by childbirth into hormonally unbalanced basket cases.

Decisions about work and family life should be respected for what they are - largely financial decisions about what distribution of labour will maximise a family's income and wellbeing. It's time to call a halt to the war.

Ross Gittins is on leave.

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87 comments

  • The Government's scheme of paid maternity leave would pay eligible recipients the adult federal minimum wage ($543.78) for 18 weeks. Other benefits and transfers available would provide support equivalent to six months.

    Abbott's scheme would pay someone on $150 000 a year $75 000 for six months. (The full replacement of the wage is being the reason why his plan would cost close to $3 billion dollars rather than the government's $300 million a year). But someone on less than the current minimum wage would presumably only receive what they earn.

    Abbott's maternity plan coupled with his nanny plan, not to mention his plan to maintain the Medicare taxpayer subsidy to the high income earners are largess of middle welfare.

    Remember, Howard made the all-time Australia history of his largess to the middle class welfare of 6 billion dollars in one hour in one of his policy speeches before the election. Has anything changed?

    Commenter
    Kattooparambil
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    April 18, 2012, 8:28AM
    • An excellent and much overdue article.

      This is a double edged sword. Not only should we, as a society, make it a level playing field for women in the work place but we should also make it equally acceptable for men to be the main carer.

      There is still a bias against men staying home to look after the children and the home. It takes many forms but the most prevelent is the media reporting any changes that affect one income families as being good/bad for 'stay at home mums'. The inference is still that it is not normal for a man to stay at home and this makes it harder for men to make that choice.

      The one criticism of this article is it should be renamed as No winners in parenting wars debate!

      Commenter
      sydney_horn
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      April 18, 2012, 8:32AM
      • The war will continue while people ignore the fact that it's not about the mother... It's about the child.

        Commenter
        davidb
        Date and time
        April 18, 2012, 8:33AM
        • Surely it is also time for society to stop assuming that it has to be the female who takes time off to look after their offspring full time. Rather than assuming this is a female's role, maybe other considerattions should come into play - such as who brings in more money, who has the better career prospects, etc. I am sick and tired of the constant double-standards being applied to males and females with regard to parenting and stifling the potential of talented women across the world.

          Commenter
          J
          Date and time
          April 18, 2012, 8:36AM
          • Jessica, you seem to reflect the prevailing utilitarian perspective: "Couples must consider which partner has the higher earning capacity and whose career progression and future earning capacity will be most negatively affected by taking time out" and advocates "greater attention to the provision of high-quality and cheap childcare to help in the household production of that most private of public goods - children".

            Our scramble for more in all aspects of family life is also expressed in the fight for 'equality' in a contrived 'battle of the sexes'. This sees men and women as being interchangeable and children as "goods". In this climate, it's a matter of time before someone develops the technology for men to get pregnant.

            Generally speaking, men do need to take a more proactive role around the house and with the kids but we can never replace the nurturing breast... nor should we try. While it's good for husbands and wives to share the burden of putting bread on the table, too many couples seem to be driven by the pursuit of a comfortable lifestyle at the expense of raising a family in its fullest expression.

            Commenter
            Tim Lee
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            April 18, 2012, 8:38AM
            • Here, here. Well said.

              Refreshing to read common sense on what many times can be a fraught discussion with over opinionated, judgemental folk.

              Commenter
              Western Sydney
              Date and time
              April 18, 2012, 8:38AM
              • As a working mum of two, i can assure you that staying home to raise five kids is a significantly more challenging option!

                Commenter
                Godiva
                Date and time
                April 18, 2012, 9:07AM
                • You claim to stand back from the mummy wars but then your analysis treats the entire issue as being only about maximising money where - of course - the argument usually favours women putting their children in childcare and doing paid work.

                  If most couples actually thought this way then there would be virtually no stay-at-home mums but their large numbers - even in your own generation - shows that most people don't think solely in terms of money. It becomes the over-riding factor only when they can't make ends meet without the mother working.

                  The only policy prescriptions you offer are also explicitly designed to increase female participation in the paid workforce in removing "traps" that keep women at home and further subsidising childcare.

                  Clearly, you have joined the mummy wars under the guise of calling a halt to them.

                  Commenter
                  GT
                  Date and time
                  April 18, 2012, 9:20AM
                  • Women are in a very difficult situation. I think society can undervalue the stay-at-home-mum role, when in reality it's an immensely important job. At the same time, economic realities can force mums into the workforce who would rather stay at home. On top of that, employers can be wary of the impact that motherhood and future pregnancy can have on the dependability of their female employees. No easy answers...

                    Commenter
                    Boxcar
                    Date and time
                    April 18, 2012, 9:20AM
                    • Yep - One of the (actually THE) toughest decision my husband and I HAD TO make was for me to go back to work after only 3 months and put our son into daycare!
                      it was solely a financial decision as we could not survive if I didnt go back to work - I still regret we had no other option, but I know that this will help provide our son with a better future (financially) to be honest, I would never EVER advise any mother to do what we did - but in the end, some of us have NO CHOICE in the matter and it's the best we can do for our children.... I would love to have been a 'stay at home mum' like nearly everyone other parent i know, but I (we) didnt have that luxury. We did (and are doing) what needs to be done to keep pay our mortgage, bills daycare fees and everything else in bewtween.... Its not easy at all in this day and age, and i know im certainly not the only one who feels this way :(

                      Commenter
                      Knight
                      Location
                      Sydney
                      Date and time
                      April 18, 2012, 9:20AM

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