The recent outrage about the bank bailout, the AIG bonuses, and rest of the economic disaster that de-regulation has wrought, provides a unique opportunity to lay bare the true values that our economy supports: i.e., what we as a country decide is worth paying for.
We all know the down side of economic downturn: the worst recession since the Great Depression, with some fearing things will get worse. But there's one possible advantage to this chaos: it belies the fairy tale that we tell ourselves about compensation. During normal, times, we tell ourselves that those at the top must be doing something worthwile to be making the big bucks, and we tell our children that there's hope for them if they just try hard enough. For women who take the lionshare of child-rearing responsibilities (i.e., almost all mothers), it's the point at which we're told - however subtley - that if we want to play with the big boys, we have to act like them. We're told that our parenting responsibilities - rather than being a contribution to society - are a burden we must shed, a weakness we must overcome, proof of our ultimate inferiority. Two media stories have crystallized this moment in history for me. First, on The Diane Rehm Show, guest host Susan Page interviewed William Cohan, author of House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street. Cohan explains how his title is a double entendre: the book describes the shaky foundation that brought down Bear Stearns, and also the culture of the firm, which was apparently based on the fact that three of its five executive committee members were actually competitive bridge champions. Cohan tells stories of CEO's being unreachable during their intense tournaments. (In one case, an executive was fired after one of these tournaments, by another executive who also was squirreled away at the tournament!) Bridge. Bridge was an excuse for highly paid, top executives, to be unreachable during crucial times in a highly influential company. (At one point, an executive's wife had to be sent to drag him out of a bridge game - wives are good for stuff like that.) Good thing these executives weren't engaged something as frivolous as child care! Meanwhile, Hanna Rosin, apparently lashing out in a torrent of resentment over years of breast-feeding her three children, wrote a piece in The Atlantic Magazine, that claims that the benefits of breast-feeding have been exaggerated in the popular media. Rosin compares breast-feeding to the housework decried in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, concluding: "it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound."
With some humor, Rosin paints the picture of a breast-feeding mom in the office, either desperately trying to steal away time from work to pump, or - when that fails - hoping against hope they she won't be embarassed by a burst a breast milk suddenly staining her blouse, sending her rushing to the rest room.
I remember those days. I taught college part time while I breast-fed my youngest child. Armed with breast-feeding pads, I worried about unexpected let downs in front of a class of freshmen. But Rosin is identifying the wrong enemy, in her search for liberation.
How absurd is it, that this amazing ability that only women have - to give sustenance to the next generation with their bodies - is turned into a source of humiliation, an impediment to gainful employment, and a general weakness, rather than a strength? Why is it that the contributions of mothering are only recognized in order to limit women's choices, but never to increase them? As Bill O'Reilly most recently expressed it, the long time traditionalist position has often been that the role that women play in society is so crucial, that they should be limited to the home. But when it comes to rewarding women for this contribution - well, they should get out of the way and leave the big boys to their bridge. The sad part of Rosin's piece, is the complete omission of the benefits of breast-feeding to the mother. (She actually admits, after all the protest, that breast is probably best for the baby.) These benefits include a lower risk of certain cancers, and a swifter return to the body's pre-pregnancy state. Rather than asking if breast-feeding keeps women down, Rosin should be asking why breast-feeding and child care are not more valued and accommodated in the working world, the way - say - military service is. Rosin does offer a glimmer of this question when she responds to the common wisdom that breast-feeding is free: "It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing." Many liberals have pointed to the hypocricy of hand-wringing over the contracts to AIG execs being potentially violated, amid calls for union contracts to be re-negotiated. But there's another double standard rarely addressed. In a previous post, I explored the history of the "wages for housework" movement. My question is: If we can accept no-bid contracts and nine billion dollars unaccounted for in Iraq, outsourcing to companies whose electrical work results in troop electrocutions, as well as bonuses to AIG execs, is the idea of wages for child care so crazy?
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