Let’s talk history for a minute. Family history.
Or rather, the history of families.
Throughout most of history, any mother wealthy enough to dedicate all her time to raising her children hired other people to do it for her. Many parents, both rich and poor, would send their children away at a young age to be apprenticed or work as servants in wealthier households. Most mothers worked side by side with their husbands in the fields or in the shop, or spent the day doing things like stirring stinky vats of lye into soap while their children either worked with their parents or occupied themselves. The idea of a non-wealthy household that could afford to spare one of its members to devote most of their energy to childrearing, or even keeping the house clean, is a product of the Industrial Revolution, which took place starting about 1760 through 1820 or 1840.1
With the advent of factories, offices, and industrial-scale mining, for the first time in history a certain number of women and children ceased contributing to household production. As people gave up traditional work of farming and crafting products like cloth by hand-at first because it seemed like a good opportunity, and later because they had no choice-more mothers found it necessary to stay at home just to take care of their children. But many families simply could not afford this, and necessity became, appropriately, the mother of invention.
“The movement of work into factories increased the difficulty of combining work and childcare. In most factory work the hours were rigidly set, and women who took the jobs had to accept the twelve or thirteen hour days. Work in the factories was very disciplined, so the women could not bring their children to the factory, and could not take breaks at will.However, these difficulties did not prevent women with small children from working.
Nineteenth-century mothers used older siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and dame schools to provide child care while they worked. Occasionally mothers would leave young children home alone, but this was dangerous enough that only a few did so. Children as young as two might be sent to dame schools, in which women would take children into their home and provide child care, as well as some basic literacy instruction. In areas where lace-making or straw-plaiting thrived, children were sent from about age seven to “schools” where they learned the trade.”2
Plenty of mothers in lower socioeconomic classes, and even their children, joined the men in the factories or found other ways to continue earning an income for their family. Though the image of the woman as a housewife and caretaker grew popular, this lifestyle was only ever an option for those who could afford it; and this only because the advent of cheap factory labor made products once produced by hand at home affordable store-bought to a wider range of people. On a worldwide scale, only a few people could afford to live like this.
Now, let’s focus on modern families.
Here are a few statistics to start:
-In the last few decades, wages have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living. Since 2001, they have stagnated even more severely.3
-American workers now put in an average of 180 more work hours per year than they did
twenty years ago, making the U.S. workweek the longest workweek in the industrialized world.4
-Our popular obsession with high-income working mothers making the “choice” to stay home does not reflect the situation of the average working mother in the average working family. “…our fixation on high-profile mothers and their employers, both real and fictional, speaks more to the problems many women wish they had than the ones they actually do have.” 5 Most families do not have one spouse who makes enough income that they can have the other decide to stay home with impunity.
-Single women with children earn an average of fifty-six cents on the dollar of what married men make.6 For most of these women, the bulk of their earnings can easily be eaten up in paying for day care, leaving them to struggle with even the basic necessities. Being a single mother is the highest indicator for poverty in the U.S.7
-In the last few decades, the cost of housing, health care, and other basics have risen rapidly. More work has become freelance, leaving families to purchase their own insurance. Overall, wages have fallen in relation to the cost of living.8 “As a result, even the average amount of money a typical two-parent family has for either discretionary spending or savings has dropped, a second income has become necessary to maintain most families’ lifestyles or, in some cases, to survive.”9
-The number of children going hungry in the U.S. rose by 50 percent in 2007 and is still rising.10
-Between the 2006-2007 school year and the 2007-2008 school year, 459 school districts in the U.S. reported an increase in homelessness among students of at least 25 percent.11
-”While most middle-income families could once count on financial stability and the ability to at least feed and clothe their offspring in exchange for their work, they are increasingly vulnerable to job loss, bankruptcy, eviction, and foreclosure that used to haunt only those on the very lowest rung of our economy.”12
Reading all this, it’s hard to believe that when I got pregnant immediately after marrying nearly eight years ago, I was pressured by friends, family, and random people in my ward to drop out of school.
Maybe even just for a little while, they’d say. So you can be with your child.
And then what? I’d think. Soon you’ll ask me when the next one is coming. And then ten, fifteen years will have passed, and I’ll be without a degree, with no work experience, leaving myself and my children completely vulnerable to anything that might take away my husband’s ability to generate sufficient income on his own. Not to mention our pressing need to not be poor, you know, right now. How does it make sense that in order to properly take care of my baby, I need to sacrifice her long-term security so that we can have a few extra hours together here and now? I’ve been told it’s my husband’s job to provide and mine to nurture. Well, from where I’m standing, making sure she has food in her tummy, a roof over her head, and money for a college education sounds a lot like nurturing.
Today, I look around at an increasingly difficult economy, where even two incomes may not provide the basics, and I am baffled that women are still being encouraged to put off education and job training in favor of having children sooner, or being told they should drop out of college once married or pregnant. Families are a basic element of LDS theology. To promote safety and stability for this important unit, wouldn’t it make sense to focus on removing the factors that threaten it the most? Poverty, for example?
It was difficult for me to finish school while pregnant, nursing, and then with a toddler. Were it not for my husband’s family watching her every day, I may have had drop out. At the least, it would have been more stressful. I would never encourage anyone to purposely have children while both parents are still in school. But I wouldn’t encourage anyone to drop out because of pregnancy either. It can be done! You can finish! Your family will only benefit in the long run.
Which brings me to my second point: we need a much better support system as a nation, and as a church, for mothers who are students and for mothers and fathers who are working. Cultural and structural changes that make it possible and acceptable, like the nursing room at the BYU Law School where you can tune in to the class you’re missing while you nurse, more quality on-site day cares for students and employees, and flexible scheduling so that it’s possible to be an active parent and a wage-earner at the same time, without losing sleep or reducing your quality of life so you can fit everything in. In a church that puts families first, I think these sound like family-strengthening projects worthy of support.
2 EH.net Encyclopedia, “Women Workers in the British Industrial Revolution,” 02-05-2010, retrieved 05-21-2013. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/burnette.women.workers.britain#31
4 Janet C. Gornick, “The Government’s Gone Fishin’: The Absence of Work/Family Reconciliation Policy in the United States,” research prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Symposium: Who Cares? Dilemmas of Work and Family in the 21st Century, Chicago, Illinois, October 20, 2006.
5 Lerner, Sharon. The War on Moms, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2010, p 59.
6 Center For American Progress, April 25, 2008.
7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminization_of_poverty, last edited March 27 2013, accessed on May 19 2013
8 Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke (New York: Basic Books, 2003)
9 Lerner, Sharon, The War on Moms, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2010, p 68.
10 Economic Research Service, “Food Security in the United States,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, November 2008.
11 Barbara Duffield and Phillip Lovell, “The Economic Crisis Hits Home: The Unfolding Increase in Child and Youth Homelessness,” National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, December 2008.
12 Lerner, Sharon, The War on Moms, John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2010, p 72.