Fri, Apr 13, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Mothers should work and not just stay at home

`Give up the paid job at your peril' is the controversial warning to a new generation of stay-at-home mothers from one of the US' star interviewers. Husbands are unsafe bets and any woman who would try to build her whole life around one by giving up her job to raise his children is indulging in high-risk behavior

By Suzanne Goldenberg  /  THE GUARDIAN , NEW YORK

The US media is fairly scrupulous about awarding credit. Researchers are recognized, and so are the Iraqi reporters who go out and gather information for the US foreign correspondents holed up in Baghdad. But even so it was surprising (and cheering) to find in the dedication for The Feminine Mistake, a new book on that perennially charged topic of motherhood and work, the following words: "To my babysitter, Norma."

After a string of books and essays on the ennui of paid employment and the virtues of devoting one's life to children and home, the author, Leslie Bennetts, offers no apologies for staying in full-time work while raising her two children. Norma, who figures in the dedication between Bennetts' mother and her daughter, was there to pick up the slack -- "with unfailing love." And so begins the rejoinder to those who have been cheering on the opt-out revolutionaries, the young women of privilege and means who have given up their jobs to stay home with the children.

Bennetts sees those women as dangerously misguided. Husbands are unreliable. They run off with other women. They die young, are struck down by debilitating (and expensive) illnesses and succumb to drink. They lose their jobs, squander investments. They are unsafe bets, and any woman who would try to build her whole life around one, by giving up her job to raise his children, is indulging in high-risk behavior.

"In this day and age, the truth is that if you add up all the risk factors, it's an extremely high-risk choice to give up your financial self-sufficiency and rely on a man to support you," she said over eggs at a neighborhood cafe in Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"If you do the math it becomes clear that the majority of women are going to end up on the wrong side of the odds. But people keep acting as if there is only a small chance that things could go wrong," she said.

The argument runs counter to a prevailing mood in the US that, contrary to what feminism promised, women cannot have it all. The worlds of work and family life compete, and finding the balance between them proves just too much for some women. Many highly educated professionals -- the would-be heirs of those feminist pioneers -- are turning their backs on their expensive educations and promises of professional achievement and are choosing to stay at home and raise their children.

Since a 2003 article in the New York Times on the "opt-out revolution" -- the exodus from the workforce of professional women during their childbearing years -- it is hard to go for very long without confronting yet another example of a woman who put her public life on hold. In 2005, there was Total 180, a Web site founded by a group of professional mothers who traded in their media careers to become, in their words, Chief Household Officers.

As of Monday the site was down -- too much housework perhaps -- but the motherhood mystique is still going strong. Last year, there was Elizabeth Vargas, who briefly became the US' first solo woman television news anchor, but took herself out of the running for the job on a permanent basis ahead of the birth of her second child. But as Bennetts showed with figures cited from the US Census Bureau, the trend goes far beyond that slim minority of upper middle-class professional women that seems to be the primary focus of the chroniclers of this new age. Workforce participation by married mothers with children has been falling. It was 68.2 percent in 2004, down nearly 3 percent from its peak in 1997. In 31.2 percent of married families with children under the age of 18, the husband was the sole breadwinner.

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