We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Nancy Hirschmann raises a host of worries about difference feminism’s 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 years—the 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 independence—the 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 Hirschmann’s 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 children’s 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 don’t 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 she’s 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 didn’t cause this problem. Obscenely wealthy people tend to make obscenely self-indulgent choices that don’t redound to societal benefit. If we’re seeing more of this than we used to, it’s because of uncaring public decisions from which we have never recovered—principally, 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 Hirschmann’s piece—the 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.
Hirschmann’s students rightly assume that care is important. Babies, toddlers, and small children will die or fail to thrive without high-quality care—a 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.
They’re 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 Hirschmann’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t wish to work because they selfishly prefer to stay home with their children. If that ever was a problem, it isn’t 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 people’s kids. One way to achieve this is taxpayer-funded childcare for preschoolers. The extreme privatization of caregiving that Hirschmann urges—that we should privatize the costs of caregiving entirely within the home, and simply seek a more equitable distribution of labor between parents—will 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 more—not less—as care feminists including Hirschmann have argued correctly for decades.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.
To generate local, inclusive prosperity, cities must think beyond tech accelerators and science parks and instead embrace a wider range of innovation strategies.