A couple of weeks ago, I attended a large dinner gathering in South Boston. Over the course of the evening, eight women—diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, and dreams—picked up a microphone to talk about the progress they had made in meeting their career goals. Every woman but one had a child by her side as she spoke.
Some of the kids held their mom’s hand and stared soberly at the crowd. Some fussed continuously. A couple crawled up their moms’ legs to be held and were given a quick turn at the microphone. The children were endearing, distracting, and, according to their mothers, vital to their career advancement. One mom told the audience that her daughter couldn’t be there that evening. She asked that we be especially supportive, to make up for the absence of her main inspiration. Everybody clapped and cheered her on.
A bedrock assumption in Nancy Hirschmann’s thesis—as it is in most care scholarship and debate—is that women have distinct choices regarding their career and care lives, as penalizing as those choices often prove to be. Most work/family and care scholars acknowledge that low-income mothers face conditions different from those faced by professional and upper-income women, but the significance of this difference often drops from their analyses and from policy efforts as well. When rare care-work legislation comes about, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, disparate class access (for example, working-class families cannot afford the twelve-week pay hiatus it offers) is accepted as unfortunate but politically unavoidable.
Over the last 25 years the greatest job growth in the United States has been in female-dominated jobs such as in the services, retail, administrative assistance, and care-work sectors. In other words, at the bottom of the wage distribution. Women have made gains in pay parity, yet many millions work in jobs that never saw the protection of unions and are the hardest hit by an eroded minimum wage. These are also the jobs that tend to have inflexible, irregular schedules that disrupt family life.
As low-end jobs surged, the only opt-out avenue available to the lowest-income mothers—the vilified welfare option—was gutted. Archival data document that most low-wage mothers, despite being routinely characterized as non-workers, tacked between jobs and public assistance based on family needs.
Today, however, millions of working mothers cannot step away from jobs, sometimes even to take a child’s phone call. They do not have the flexibility, benefits, job security, wages, career potential, or safety net—public or private—to opt out, even temporarily.
Single mothers live a life far removed from those of Hirschmann’s dual-career couples negotiating career and care commitments. And their ranks are increasing. Forty percent of all births in the United States are non-marital, a rate that has grown for lower-income families as parenting-age fathers have lost (or among men of color, never had) access to sustainable blue-collar work. Research on employment and wage effects on families has long revealed that male unemployment reduces marriage rates, increases divorce rates, and disaffiliates men from daily roles in family life.
Single moms already know what happens when they “care less,” as Hirschmann advises. When the low-wage labor market demands that they put jobs first and ignore family needs even though they cannot afford paid childcare, their children often are left to care for themselves. Even more challenging to Hirschmann’s missive is research revealing that children—usually girls—may be the most available and reliable care substitutes for many working-class mothers.
It should not be surprising then that working-class women tell different stories about care work, ones that have little to do with gender expectations or equality. They talk about efforts to put children first in a society that consistently has demonstrated that children of color and low-income children are expendable. Listen to mothers in African-American, Latino, recent-immigrant families, and now in many white working-class families too: you will hear women talk about doing care as a kind of resistance in a context of deep economic disparity.
While many working-class mothers seek college and career, they seldom describe professional goals as distinct from family goals, their children’s needs and dreams. In higher-income society, life stages can be separate spheres: education, career, and family. But in working-class America these worlds have always spilled into one another.
The collective—not individual—purpose depicted in working-class mother’s narratives may signify their failure in a society driven by self-interest. But it may also provide a valuable counter-narrative deserving of more discussion. Regardless, these millions of mothers and the families they uphold should not be missing from Hirschmann’s framework of care and choice.
A few weeks ago those moms in South Boston spoke of hard-won accomplishments and goals for the future while holding children in their arms, a spontaneous demonstration of the place of care work in their lives. As the mom who stood alone suggested, caring about others is a vital part of a good life, even if you have to carry those others sometimes; even if they slow you down on your way.