Comment: Child care opponents’ double-talk on who stays home

When conservatives say they want a parent to stay home, they’re talking about mothers.

By Jill Filipovic / Special To The Washington Post

In the long tail of a pandemic that has been financially devastating for working mothers, Democrats are pushing to expand child-care options, and potentially bring the United States in line with much of the rest of the developed world in offering a universal child-care system.

In response, conservatives are freaking out.

The most visible anti-child-care Republican at the moment is J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and rumored to be considering a run for a Senate seat in Ohio. Vance went on a Twitter tear on Thursday in which he leaned into gender-neutral terms — “parents, “Americans,” “people” — while criticizing “corporate day care” and arguing that “a healthy society should make it easier for parents to care for kids.” President Biden’s proposal for universal pre-K, Vance declared, was a “war against normal people” and their preferences for their households.

When Vance talks about the people who primarily care for children, and who struggle to raise kids and work for pay, he isn’t talking about “parents” or “people” or “Americans” or even “the working class.” He’s talking about mothers. And when it comes to the people Vance and other self-styled conservative populists imagine should be at home, it’s not “parents” who come to mind, but married women financially supported by their husbands.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., for example, compared universal day care to communism and went on Fox News to argue that by offering child care, Democrats were seeking to “incentivize women to rely on the federal government to organize their lives.” When Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced his Parent Tax Credit, he noted that “millions of working people want to start a family and would like to care for their children at home, but current policies do not respect these preferences.” Neither, apparently, does Hawley himself: His bill has an earnings requirement, meaning the neediest families — disproportionately headed by single mothers — won’t qualify because Hawley and other Republicans want to ensure they’re working for pay. And while Hawley said he’s pushing the bill because “American families should be supported,” his bill wouldn’t support all families equally: It would give single-parent families, which are largely headed by women, half of what two-parent families receive.

On the surface, talking about “parents” rather than “mothers” might seem like progress. That gender-neutral language has become more standard in these discussions does reflect a real shift in gender norms: Men are doing a lot more parenting than they used to; fathers increasingly say they want a better work-life balance and more time with their families; feminists have pushed for a world in which fathers do their fair share, women can work for pay, and it’s not presumed that women will be the primary caregivers for children.

Such language can reflect changing ideas and our hopes for the future. But it can also be slippery and evasive, a way to obscure whom policies would really affect. It’s mothers who still do the majority of child-care in the United States (and around the world) and who spend much more time with their children than fathers do with theirs. Mothers are much more likely than fathers to raise their children without a partner: The number of unmarried parents has exploded, but the proportion of unmarried parents who are solo dads hasn’t changed since the 1960s. One in four American children are now being raised in single-parent households, and overwhelmingly by single moms.

Solo moms who need to put food on their kids’ plates need child care more than just about anyone. So far, no member of the GOP has proposed paying them a full salary to stay home. Working-class and poor women are more likely than middle-class and wealthy women to have a child before getting married, if they marry at all. Despite a move to rebrand themselves the representatives of the working class, Republicans have never wanted to financially empower the many working-class solo mothers to have the choice to stay home. And even as they talk about “parents” having that option, they’ve certainly never pushed for dads to quit their jobs and become full-time homemakers.

The number of dads who purposefully quit jobs to raise their kids remains pretty tiny. In two-parent families where one partner stays home, that partner is almost always the mother. And while a number of fathers are the primary caretakers for their children, men are still much more likely to say they’re at home because they’re ill or disabled than to say they affirmatively chose to stay home to raise kids. Women, on the other hand, are much more likely to have left work specifically to raise their children. Only a quarter of stay-at-home dads intentionally left the workforce to care for kids, compared to three-quarters of stay-at-home moms.

It is mothers particularly, not parents equally, who do most of the work of raising America’s children. It’s mothers specifically, not parents generally, who are pushed out of the labor force when child care is unavailable or inaccessible. And when Americans say that it’s better to have one parent at home full-time with young children, a little digging shows that they overwhelmingly mean it’s better to have the mother at home full-time: Very few say it’s ideal to have dad home with the kids. When conservatives tout policies that would enable one “parent” to stay home, they’re really saying that they want mothers to stay home.

The past year, with the disruptions of the pandemic, has only magnified these inequities. With kids out of school and at home, it was working mothers who were suddenly charged with figuring out how to be full-time employees, full-time caregivers and full-time teachers. A lot of them couldn’t do it: More than 5 million women lost their jobs during the pandemic. Single mothers were hit hardest of all, and Black and Latina single mothers the hardest among them. Unemployed women were nearly three times as likely as unemployed men to cite child-care demands as the reason they were out of the labor force.

What self-styled pro-family conservatives rarely want to address is that women working is good for both women and families. It brings a wide assortment of financial and social benefits, from children who do better in school to daughters who are more likely to be employed to boys who grow into more involved fathers. Working mothers are better off financially than their stay-at-home peers; they wind up with more retirement savings; they are less likely to say they feel angry and depressed; and they are better insulated from divorce, death of a spouse, and other sad but common life disruptions that leave all families reeling, but leave stay-at-home mothers in much more dire straits. A lot of data supports the conclusion that it’s good when women work outside the home. What’s not good is when working mothers are squeezed from all sides, juggling more-demanding workplaces, a dearth of affordable child care, and ever-higher standards for what it means to be a good mom.

It’s far past time Americans had serious discussions about child care, and these debates about some of the most intimate and important parts of our lives will always force us to work through what we most value: Female independence or long-enforced gender roles; the false promise of “choice” or the wide unknown of unrealized opportunity. But if we want to find solutions that meet the needs and desires of more Americans, we need to talk about what we’re actually talking about. All parents do not shoulder the burdens of parenting equally. When it comes to expectations about who forgoes income and the independence it brings, who gets pushed out of the workforce when child-care demands scale up, and who conservatives expect to stay home with kids, we’re not talking about all parents equally, regardless of gender.

We’re talking about mothers.

Jill Filipovic is a journalist, lawyer and the author of “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.”

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