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Home of Dr. Christine B. Whelan

It’s not about the yummy mummies

Judith Warner had an excellent piece in the New York Times today. While the headlines carry stories of ladies of leisure who have to do their own childcare, or — gasp — look for some work to support their family after the man of the house loses his job, the real story of this economic downturn is how it affects working class families.

Warner quotes Stephanie Coontz, a friend and colleague of mine:

Increasing numbers of working class women now — in a downturn where 82 percent of the job losses have been among men – have become their family’s sole wage-earners, it’s true. But their husbands, very often, are holding their own at home just fine. For while the stereotype has long been that working class men won’t do “women’s work,” Coontz said, the truth is that in recent years they’ve had a better track record than the most high-income men in sharing domestic duties. Twenty percent of these men, in fact, actually do more housework and child care now than their wives. “These people have been doing it for some time and they’re much more ideologically committed to doing it,” she said. “I think your worst offenders” (dirty coffee mug-wise), “are in that top 5 percent.”

“I’ve been a little irritated by the slams on men,” she added.

It’s not just for the sake of being fair to the hubbies that we’ve got to keep our wits about us these days and avoid falling into the usual clichés about class and gender with which we tend to make sense of men and women’s changing lives. There’s a deeper reason, too: paying attention only to the – real or perceived – “choices” and travails of the top 5 percent hides the experiences of all the rest. And this means that the needs of all the rest never quite rise to the surface of our national debate or emerge at the top of our political priorities.

This happened very obviously in the 1990s, when the New Traditionalist story line hid the fact that many mothers at home were actually either poor (and unable to “afford to work” if they had kids, as Coontz puts it), or had had their nonworking “choice” made for them by an inflexible workplace or a high-earning husband’s nearly 24/7 work schedule. Years of public prosperity passed without any real action on creating family-friendly workplaces.

Our family demongraphics have been divering for decades. While headlines cry out about the “plight” of the successful single woman who worries about her odds of marriage (which are great, mind you), the real story is that less educated, less affluent families are struggling more than ever.

Let’s focus the attention on the families who need our concerns.

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March 20, 2009 - Posted by | Academic Musings

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