This article is a response to Mothers Who Care Too Much
Nancy Hirschmann raises a host of worries about difference feminisms accounts of the centrality of caregiving to human flourishing. She also criticizes the public-policy recommendations that care feminists have put forward, premised on the assumptions that caregiving has substantial public value, that it ought to be compensated accordingly, and that past failure to do so has been an injustice.
I am sympathetic to those worries. I, too, am concerned about the numbers of relatively privileged women leaving university life and professional school for full-time mothering, whether they intend to return or not. I agree that they are doing themselves and their children no favors, and that their actions represent a breach, of sorts, of a web of obligations that should flow from the substantial societal resources committed to their education and training.
I also agree that no matter the considerable shortcomings of our current welfare net for poor mothers, a return to the policies of the 1980s is no cure. While I do not applaud the motives behind the welfare-reform movement of the Clinton-Bush yearsthe stated goal of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and its subsequent reenactments was to encourage poor women to marry, not to nudge them toward greater financial independencethe law nevertheless reflected a sound shift toward helping poor mothers become workers by, in part, supporting their education and subsidizing their childcare expenses. Those childcare subsidies, never substantial to begin with, are now under political pressure, and if they disappear altogether, poor women will have neither old-style welfare payments nor PRWORA-style assistance.
I disagree, however, with Hirschmanns diagnosis and its implications for policy. Hirschmann identifies two problems: educated women who opt for stay-at-home mothering and put their careers, financial independence, and childrens character at some risk by doing so; and the difficulties poor women face in finding and funding adequate childcare while they pursue employment and education opportunities.
I dont believe that the root of either problem lies in an excess of care, or that caring less and exhorting fathers to care more will solve them.
First, the wife who foregoes the career at the brokerage house or law firm for which shes been trained, stays home and has children as a form of conspicuous consumption, and then hires nannies to watch her children, is being self-indulgent and selfish. She and her kids will leave an outsized carbon footprint on the world and not contribute much.
But difference feminism didnt cause this problem. Obscenely wealthy people tend to make obscenely self-indulgent choices that dont redound to societal benefit. If were seeing more of this than we used to, its because of uncaring public decisions from which we have never recoveredprincipally, Reagan-era tax cuts for the wealthy. The solution is a return to more progressive tax rates and/or a cap on the compensation of top earners.
Caregiving is too important to leave to the unpaid labor of mothers. Everyone ought to do it.
But what of the students who motivated Hirschmanns piecethe not-so-privileged but educated women who intend to opt for mothering over career? I suspect that their problem involves not valorizing care so much as valorizing mothering.
Hirschmanns students rightly assume that care is important. Babies, toddlers, and small children will die or fail to thrive without high-quality carea lot of it. Inadequately cared-for teens and young adults turn sociopathic with depressing regularity. The students also assume, though, that mothering is the only way to provide all that care, and that mothering is the highest form of caregiving in which they can or will engage in their own lives.
Theyre wrong. To re-work a cliché, caregiving is too important to leave to the unpaid labor of mothers. Everyone ought to do it. Fathers, as Hirschmann argues, ought to do it. But so should well-compensated workers at taxpayer-funded day-care facilities and employer-provided day-care centers. If we really value this work, we should share it and compensate it, freeing mothers to participate in both the labor market and the public sphere. The problem is not that Hirschmanns students intend to provide too much care to their children. Rather, the problem is that they intend to provide too much mothering. These mothers-to-be should indeed get to work. It doesnt mean their children-to-be should be cared for less. It means the labor should be better distributed.
Second, poor women, particularly single mothers, face a different problem. It is not that they dont wish to work because they selfishly prefer to stay home with their children. If that ever was a problem, it isnt now; there is no public assistance to support such choices. Rather, there are few good jobs for them, and they lack adequate resources to secure decent childcare so that they can perform what jobs they find. Decreases in the already-scarce funds we currently devote to publicly subsidized childcare will further exacerbate this problem. Only a change in public priorities, not a change in feminist rhetoric that promotes work over mothering, will alleviate it.
What kind of change in priorities? We might, for example, urge our fellow citizens to endorse policies that support other peoples kids. One way to achieve this is taxpayer-funded childcare for preschoolers. The extreme privatization of caregiving that Hirschmann urgesthat we should privatize the costs of caregiving entirely within the home, and simply seek a more equitable distribution of labor between parentswill never advance such an effort.
Hirschmann urges women to quit seeking more care-friendly policies from the state and turn instead to the men in our lives to share an equitable portion of the burden. While this might lead to more just homemaking, it will not solve the problem of inadequate state assistance for families of all configurations that need help with childcare costs. Working-class, middle-class, and profoundly poor families need help with childcare no matter how fairly caregiving labor is distributed among adults.
That help will not be available until it is backed by political will, will that demands we value care and caregiving labor morenot lessas care feminists including Hirschmann have argued correctly for decades.
1) Book or article, p. XX.
Robin West is Frederick J. Haas Professor of Law and Philosophy at the Georgetown University Law Center and author of Marriage, Sexuality, and Gender.