If the essence of liberation is a career unconstrained by husband or children, yes, stay-at-home mothers should be depressed

Today Slate came out with an article by Sharon Lerner asking why stay-at-home moms are so depressed. According to a study cited by the article, 28% of stay-at-home moms suffer from depression, compared to only 17% of working women (with or without children). Now no matter what spin you’d like to put on the subject, this is bad news. The work that mothers do caring for children is not an interest or focus group issue. It is not even a culture war issue. It is the foundation of our society. The evidence is solid that devoted and sustained parental care and attention for children is crucial for their development. Children who rarely see their parents because they are always working suffer in a wide range of ways. In short, this is not an issue of the right or the left. We should all be concerned.

That said, what are the probable causes of this higher risk of depression among stay-at-home moms? Lerner speculates as to several causes. One is that

the findings do offer some evidence that stay-at-home moms, who make up 37 percent of Gallup’s sample of mothers with kids living at home, are more likely to be unhappy, resentful—and thus perhaps also likely to take umbrage, along with Romney, at being portrayed as lazy or irrelevant. [Ann] Romney tapped into a long and strong current of resentment among stay-at-home mothers when she tweeted that raising five boys was “hard work.”

But, Lerner points out,

if Ann Romney was spot-on about both the derision reserved for stay-at-home mothers and how offended they are by it, what she doesn’t get—and what was reflected clearly in the Gallup poll—is the economic expression of this same sentiment: that the work of caring for children is also undervalued economically, which adds to the financial and emotional burdens of mothers who don’t have jobs. Financial strain is, in many ways, a bigger problem than lack of appreciation. It hinders the work of raising kids, and it dogs women long after they’ve returned to the paid work force (as most ultimately do) in the form of reduced earnings and Social Security benefits.

So both in terms of social honor and financial reward, stay-at-home moms get the short end of the stick. This despite the fact that they do arguably the most important work on which our society depends. There can be no doubting that a society that fails to honor its mothers is a society that itself deserves no honor.

So what is the solution? Lerner has her own suggestions:

neither party is saying enough about the things that might help stay-at-home moms out of their financial hole, things like paid parental leave (the lack of which nudges many new mothers out of the workforce); protections for part-time workers, which would allow mothers to spend some time with their kids and get some income, job satisfaction, and recognition; affordable childcare, which would make holding down those part- and full-time jobs possible; and changing the way we track earnings toward Social Security, so the years spent at home with children aren’t recorded as zeros.

Isn’t this fascinating? The way in which we should help make stay-at-home moms less depressed is to make it easier for them to get out of the home and get to work! In other words, stay-at-home moms, you are depressed because you should be depressed. The good life is out there, and you are stuck in here.

Now I am not suggesting that none of Lerner’s proposals are good policy proposals. That is not my point. My point is that many of the elites in this culture push a version of women’s flourishing that demands that they work and loosen their ties to their children and their homes. It is not simply that our society tries to make it possible for women to have flourishing careers. That itself is a good thing. The problem is that our society suggests in a myriad of ways that it is better for women to focus on having a career rather than raising a family.

You would think it would be obvious that the solution is not creating more benefits for women who work in an office, but creating more incentives (whether financial or social) for women who do the hard work of caring for children. I grew up thinking my mother and grandmother were the most honorable people I knew. I now think that about my grandmother, my mother, and my wife. I am not suggesting we make it harder for women to work. Far from it. But somehow America needs to figure out how to give to women who stay home to care for children the incommensurable honor they deserve.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 23, 2012, in Social Issues and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on If the essence of liberation is a career unconstrained by husband or children, yes, stay-at-home mothers should be depressed.

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