Motherhood and apple pie, as the idiom suggests, are things we can all agree on — they’re archetypes of all that’s good and wholesome.
Well, apple pie now has some high-placed enemies, and even motherhood’s not getting the respect it used to; a certain kind of motherhood at least.
As a number of commentators have noted, the president’s plan to help middle-class families unveiled in the State of the Union speech has a blind spot. As family scholar W. Bradford Wilcox explains:
The president’s plan would triple the existing child-care tax credit to $3,000 for two-earner families with children under 5 and a combined income of less than $120,000, and it would establish a new $500 credit for families in which both spouses work. The plan would provide tax relief—which would no doubt help with the cost of child care, commuting, etc.—to middle-class families with both parents in the workforce. But families who choose to have a parent at home would see none of this tax relief.
The hopefully unintentional slight followed an awkward statement last year during a speech on Women and the Economy where the president—while endorsing paid family leave, better daycare and early childhood education—said: “sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make. ”
So, perhaps motherhood’s still okay as long as mother doesn’t shirk paid work to do it.
G.K. Chesterton pointed out the flaw in this line of thinking in 1920:
If people cannot mind their own business, it cannot possibly be more economical to pay them to mind each other’s business, and still less to mind each other’s babies. It is simply throwing away a natural force and then paying for an artificial force; as if a man were to water a plant with a hose while holding up an umbrella to protect it from the rain. . . . Ultimately, we are arguing that a woman should not be a mother to her own baby, but a nursemaid to somebody else’s baby. But it will not work, even on paper. We cannot all live by taking in each other’s washing, especially in the form of pinafores.
It would actually be easy to avoid the problem of singling out the choice to remain at home to care for children for less favorable treatment. Professor Wilcox notes that an idea proposed by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio would expand “the child tax credit to $3,500 from its current $1,000 and extending it to payroll taxes” which would treat all parents the same, regardless of whether there are one or two wage earners in the home.
Utah’s policies have some blind spots regarding single-income families as well. For instance, if a parent who chooses to forego paid employment is divorced, the law “imputes” non-existent income to that person that will offset the obligations the spouse who caused the divorce would have had. This means a decrease in the amount that would be available to the stay-at-home parent, making it more likely that person will have to leave home for paid work.
From a purely practical perspective, it might be wise for a divorced spouse to find other sources of income given the possibility that support might not be paid or might not be adequate, it hardly seems like good policy for the state to assume that the only appropriate thing for a parent who has been at home with the children to do is to get back into the workplace and have children shift for themselves as quickly as possible. Maybe that result can’t be avoided but it need not be mandated.
Policy makers need to be reminded that mothers, and sometimes fathers, who sacrifice to care for children in the home are making an incalculable contribution not only to their children and their family but to society at large. They deserve respect and appreciation and even help, not to have their choice hedged up by those who are blind to all but market values.
William C. Duncan is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society.