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Wife Bonuses, Mad Men and The Mommy Wars

In a recent Sunday issue of the New York Times two very different articles on women and their households appeared.

One, “Poor Little Rich Woman,” is already stirring up controversy for the so-called “wife bonuses” that some of these uber wealthy stay-at-home-moms supposedly receive from their husbands if they perform well as wives and mothers (although that notion has been pretty thoroughly debunked as something of a one-off.) The other, which has received far, far less publicity — probably because the topic isn’t nearly as gossip-worthy — is an article called “Do Children of Working Moms Benefit?”

Coincidentally, both of these articles arrived on the day of the last episode of Mad Men, a series which chronicled very accurately the plight of both the mothers who stay at home and those who try to work.

It is clear that the issue of who stays home with the kids and why and how they stay home is still being debated in both the real world and in fictional ones, but it’s a debate that only upper class and wealthy women can engage in, of course.

Those women who have no choice to stay at home without impoverishing their family or going on welfare aren’t really included in these “conversations” unless we hope they are shored up by the notion that their work outside the home imparts some very real advantages to their sons and daughters, even, one would hope, if that job is housekeeping or fast food or even two or three jobs to make ends meet.

In other words what we continue to focus on is the rarefied atmosphere of the mothers who actually get to choose while the fact is that nearly “three-quarters of American mothers with children at home are employed,” even if they aren’t always working full time for a variety of reasons.

Full confession. I did both. I worked, part time, when my son was very small, but found that the child care in my small town was not up to snuff and that the work I was doing at the time was not nearly as fulfilling as caring for my son. So, for the rest of my married life I freelanced, writing when the children were asleep or occupied and being a full time mom when they needed me. I was lucky to be able to do so but I also accepted the financial sacrifices involved. The downside was that when I divorced I found myself in a very precarious financial situation for several years and had few options but minimum wage work in a bookstore.

Even almost thirty years ago when I began raising my children the so-called “mommy wars” were in full swing. Mothers who worked as physicians, lawyers and professors often called on the stay-at-homes to pick up the slack when it came to volunteering, ferrying the children to and from school and lessons and arranging play dates. There was loads of resentment in both groups and I found myself wanting to be allied with neither.

But I understood then and understand now that women identifying with something in addition to raising their children gave those kids several benefits, even if at the time they seemed ineffable. In my case my children saw me leave for several weeks each year to go to a writer’s colony; their father took over with no large hitches. They also knew what when I was in my office writing they were not to disturb me unless the house was on fire.

I am gratified to see then that in Claire Cain Miller’s article in the New York Times and in another recent piece in Forbes by Emma Johnson that working mothers don’t damage their children at all. In fact, working outside the home is credited with the daughters of those women earning more in their work lives and the sons understanding that their share of the housework in the family is non-negotiable. Johnson cites the University of Maryland study which states that “the number of hours a mother spends with her kids aged 3 to 11 has little to no impact on their academic or psychological success.”

Continues Johnson: “This finding completely confronts and contradicts the prevalent parenting message of our time: More time with your kids is more. Mothers are told in direct and indirect ways: The stay-at-home mom is the better mom. The message is: If you work outside the home, your children will suffer. In fact, a couple years ago a Pew survey found a stunning 40 percent of Americans believe that when a mother (not parent — mother) works outside the home it actually harms her children.” (italics are Johnson’s).

Miller’s articles stresses more subtle benefits, such as the notion that a happy family will be happy no matter the status of the mother, working or not. But she adds that the Harvard study she writes about is “part of a shift away from focusing on whether working mothers hurt children and toward a richer understanding of the relationship between work and family.”

Which is how it should be. Neither men nor women can thrive if the onus for happiness is laid on the shoulders of mom alone, nor the guilt for the outcome her fault entirely. Family is macro, not micro. And that is why the article on the glamorous and rich stay-at-home mothers is much less disturbing than the hornet’s nest it has stirred. I know women like those East Side mothers. I have never envied them. I don’t particularly envy single moms either, although I was one for awhile. They have all made a choice based solely on their own economic situations but the issue is so much larger than that.

In the end, the wife or mommy bonus is as interesting and uncommon as the apartment whose price is “available on demand.” Out of reach of the 99 percent. Which, really, is all of us. There is a reason more women identified with Joan on Mad Men over Betty. Perhaps when my grandchildren have children this “debate” will no longer be pertinent.

(This post originally appeared in The Broad Side)