Monday, July 16, 2007

Memo to SAHM Basher Leslie Bennetts...

Eve Tahmincioglu's "Your Career" column on this week has a feature on former stay-at-home moms who are having difficulty re-entering the work force. She quotes Leslie Bennetts, journalist for Vanity Fair magazine (not exactly a respected scholar) and author of The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up too Much? Ms. Bennetts claims that:
"the majority of women who give up careers to stay home will end up on the wrong side of the odds" pointing to the 50 percent U.S. divorce rate.
Hold it right, there, Ms. Bennetts! For the subset of women being discussed, the divorce rate is NOT 50%. According to research done by sociologist Russell Martin of the University of Maryland, the divorce rate for women holding a bachelor's degree or higher is only 17%. So of the women who've "opted out" (a misnomer as I discussed here), 5 out of 6 will NOT experience a divorce. While there is indeed a risk of divorce, it is not even remotely close to what Ms. Bennetts claims.

It is true that during the 1970's and early 1980's, the divorce rate was much higher than it is today and many Gen X women have bitter memories of their moms struggling to enter the workforce after a divorce. Reading the reviews on Amazon this theme keeps coming up in many of the ones who gave the book a high rating. Times have changed, folks! What your mom experienced in 1970-something is indeed tragic, but not all that relevant to today's generation of SAHM's.

Neither of the letter writers in Ms. Tahmincioglu's column who are trying to re-enter the workforce after a divorce have a college degree. Well, yeah, people with only a high school diploma are going to have a tough time finding decent-paying jobs! That doesn't mean that a highly educated former professional-turned-SAHM is going to face nearly as much difficulty landing a job if she wants (or needs) to go back to work. Yes, she'll likely pay a financial penalty when compared to what she would've been making had she not "off ramped". But a survey done by Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work Life Policy in New York found that 74% of stay-at-home moms who want to go back are able to. Most who don’t get jobs are looking for part-time or flexible jobs, which are notoriously difficult to find.

Leslie Morgan Steiner made an excellent point in her blog post about Ms. Bennetts' book (emphasis added):
"maybe we [employed moms] want stay-at-home moms to suffer a penalty for taking time off. Moms at home are the devil on every working mother’s shoulders: the women who chose their children over their jobs. Their decisions make us feel guilty about our own. Psychologically, maybe working moms seek to justify the superiority of our own, often guilt-ridden, anxiety-driven choices to continue our careers uninterrupted by disparaging stay-at-home moms for their foolish 'feminine mistakes.'"
Bingo! I've been both an employed mom and a SAHM (I hate the term "working mom" since ALL moms do valuable work, whether or not they earn a paycheck). I have vivid memories of the guilt I felt over having to work full-time outside the home and not being able to be my child's primary caretaker. It strikes me very much as "sour grapes" when Ms. Bennetts and Professor Linda Hirshman bash SAHM's for making different choices than them. Which, as Professor Pam Stone found, these moms often are making reluctantly as a last resort (being "pushed out" rather than truly "opting out").

I'm just finishing up Prof. Stone's book Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home and will post my further thoughts on it soon. Stay tuned...


Susan said...

Great post! I am a SAHM. I have a Masters Degree. I was highly successful in my field and made great money before I "off-ramped".

I am fully aware that when the time comes for me to go back to work, I will be lucky to make half of what I was making before. And there's no way I will get right back in to my previous profession. (The computer industry changes at such a rapid pace that I am obsolete in that field now.)

But rather than complain about that, I ask myself one simple question. ARE MY CHILDREN WORTH IT?

The answer is a resounding YES.

jennifer said...

Some time back, I read Bennett's interview with Ladies Home Journal, and also listened to it. It's all fear based, "what if your husband drops dead" kind of stuff. I'm glad I listened to it, because her tone of voice was very revealing. She did not appear to be speaking out of love or a desire to truly help these "poor women who weren't given all the information," but out of anger. Anger about what? I'm not sure, but like you said, there is some guilt involved.

Jennifer in OR,

Mama Zen said...

Great post! And, great correction about the divorce rate stats.

I posted about Bennetts' book today. I haven't finished the book yet, but I have been really taken aback by her nasty, judgemental tone.