The Rhetoric of "Choice"

In examining the “Mommy Wars” this month it is important to take a step back and recognize that this pitting of mother’s against each other, whether they are working or stay at home, breast feeding or formula feeding, circumcising or leaving their child intact, vaccinating or non-vaccinating etc. all comes from the idea of “choice.” Ultimately these conflicts boil down to women passing judgments on other women’s “choices.”

The problem with this is, while some things in motherhood are a true choice, others may be billed as a “choice” when in fact they are anything but. When you stop and recognize this element, it makes it much harder to judge someone else’s situation. It is easy to say someone made a poor “choice” but much harder to judge them for the same thing if you recognize it was thrust upon them.

Short of becoming a fly on a family's wall, it is impossible to analyze all of the factors that go into a family’s every decision. Motherhood is as individual as the family make-up, personalities of each individual member, and specific position within the larger socioeconomic spectrum.

Today we discuss the “choice” to work or stay home.

Can women who want to work really afford to put multiple children in child care? Can women who want to stay home afford to quit their more lucrative jobs in order to do so? Sure it might be possible on both counts to “choose” to do so, but there are always sacrifices. In some cases the sacrifices may not be worth making depending on the individuals in the situation. For example, a family might be able to go without a second car in order to cut expenses, but another family may have constraints that demand the easy transportation a second car might provide. Another example I heard while talking with a group of moms, was about a woman who sold her house and moved in with relatives just so she could stay home with her children. And I have to say, as much as I love my mother and yes, even my mother-in-law, I would definitely go back to work before giving up my autonomy by moving in with them.

On a separate but related note, it was recently revealed in a recent expose on ABC’s 20/20 that human resources managers sometimes go out of their way to deny women, specifically one’s suspected to be mothers of young children from the workforce. The belief is that women with young children would not be “focused” on their jobs. How are women supposed to work and provide for their family if they can’t secure employment? And how can they then be judged on that fact? A woman making less than $50,000 a year who has three children under the age of 5 often has no choice but to leave the workforce due to the excessive cost of child care, so how can we punish her by making it harder for her to come back? A mother who wanted nothing more than to stay home with her child has no choice but to work if her husband leaves her, so how can we heap more guilt on her for “choosing” to work?

Authors and advocates for women’s rights such as Linda Hirshman, a law professor, and Ann Crittenden, a writer, both coming from very different places in the mommy war debate, agree that the rhetoric of choice is letting society off the hook when it comes to integrating family life into the public job market and government. Crittenden states in her book The Price of Motherhood:

There it was in a nutshell: the cover story. The sidelined ambitions, the compromises mothers live with that their husbands never had to make, all justified on the grounds of women’s choice. What women choose is so important precisely because women bear a disproportionate share of the costs of child-rearing. If they do this willingly, there’s no problem. It’s their choice. No one “made them do it,” so no one has to do anything about it. (Crittenden 2001: 233).

We need to take the word “choice” out of our arguments between mothers. Only by doing that can we begin to seek real-world solutions to these long debated problems.