The topic of should women work or should they stay home is a baby boomer fetish topic, with Leslie Bennetts being the current poster girl.
Joan Walsh, writing at Salon, points out that we are generally sick of baby boomer women telling younger women what to do and what not to do. But we are also generally disgusted with the baby boomer infatuation with the opt-out topic since only 4% of women in this country are so lucky to have both a hotshot career and a husband making enough money to be the sole breadwinner. For the other 96% of us, opting out is about gutwrenching financial decisions, not feminist platitudes.
Nevertheless, women like Bennetts approach the issue of staying home with kids as if many women are considering this option. She says that women who quit working and stay home with their kids will decrease their earning power and put themselves at risk if there’s a divorce.
First of all, we know that baby boomers divorced at a higher rate than any group in history, and today the risk of divorce is only 20% for college-educated women, and the trend is for divorce rates to continue declining. Yet Bennetts writes about divorce among women who can afford to stay home as if it’s an epidemic.
Second, when a woman stays at home the marriage is more likely to stay intact, and when a marriage stays intact, the kids do better. So you can argue forever that a stay-at-home parent (male or female) loses something by not going to work, but clearly their family gains something, so if women want to stop working for a while, fine. Why get all up in arms about it?
The problem is when there is a divorce. Divorce doesn’t just hurt stay-at-home parents, who have to go back to work after being out of the workforce for years. It hurts breadwinners, who, because of child support issues are very limited in the career moves they can make. But most of all, divorce hurts kids.
Divorced parents routinely walk around saying that their kids are doing fine and that their kids are better off because the parents are happier. However there is little evidence to generally support either of these claims. Both are very psychological and complicated and parents are hardly good judges of their own case since they have already made the decision and want to feel it was not selfish and terrible to do to their kids.
Here is what there is research to support: Even amicable divorces do permanent damage to kids, yet the media practically ignored this evidence when it came out. Kids with divorced parents do worse in school, and this research is independent of socioeconomic status, and it gets worse if a parent remarries. Also, if you get divorced, you make your child almost 50% more likely to get a divorce.
So here’s what we know for sure, today: Women who work have a higher chance of having a divorce, and women who stay at home are very vulnerable in the case of a divorce.
Here’s what we should do with this information: Start talking about how to keep a marriage together. Making marriage last is a workplace issue because work factors play such a very large role in the equation. Work needs to help us to keep marriages together instead of hurt it. And advice about work needs to focus on improving marriage rather than preparing for divorce.
This issue hits close to home to me because my marriage is under stress right now. We have two young kids, both of whom have special needs. Additionally, I’m at a time in my career when I have a lot of work, while my husband is lost in his career.
Sometimes I think of getting a divorce, and I tell myself I’m not doing it. I tell myself that no one is in love every second of their marriage. I tell myself that this is a really bad time in our marriage and I will have to work really hard to make it better.
And then I think, how will I find time to do that? I actually have very little guilt about how I have dealt with my kids. I spend tons of time with them because my work is flexible. But I have not focused on my marriage. I have focused on my kids and my career and myself.
But what about my marriage? It’s a big part of the equation. I hear a lot of women saying they have a problem keeping their marriage together. And in general the group that shouts the loudest about advice for keeping a marriage intact is the Christian right. (Check out the fourth result on the Google list from the search “how to keep your marriage together“.)
So this is my call for a shift in discussion about women and work. Both men and women need to figure out how talk about how to make better marriages. We need to take all our energy we spend talking about the risks of stay-at-home parenting, and the risks of dual-career families, and put that thinking power toward what makes a marriage strong.