Stop Paying Lip Service to Poor American Mothers and DO SOMETHING!

fAffecting change from a position of privilegeWhen my parents had me – their third, unexpected child in 1978 – we lived in a small, three bedroom duplex in the small town of Kearney, Missouri. My Dad was a highschool science teacher. For extra money, he coached track and drove the school bus. My Mom had a college degree, but was staying home because that was more cost-effective than paying for full-time childcare. After I was born we were bordering on poverty. My mother had no choice but to return to work so my parent’s moved our family to an even smaller, cheaper town where we had family who could provide free childcare while my parents commuted an hour and a half each way to work for two years. To make more money, my mother also completed her Master’s Degree in those years.

My parents scraped by for a long time. Ten years or more. My Dad told me that he considered himself a lucky man if he had enough money at the end of the week to buy a six-pack of beer. My parents did not buy their first home until they were in their mid-thirties, when I was two. Even then, it was with a hefty loan from my grandmother (which they paid back in full, with interest).

Over the years their income steadily increased and we had more things. Not much, but enough. We owned a black and white television until the late 80s, drove rusted-out, second-hand cars and we never took a single family vacation. But my parents stressed the value of an education and all three of their children went to forgettable state universities, each of which my parent’s paid for by working summer school and moonlighting. My parent’s are hard workers.

I have been steadily employed since I was 15. I bought my own car at 18. I lived at home all four years of college and when I got out, I was $5000 in debt. After graduation, I paid off my debt in two years, moved out and focused on my career. My first job paid $25,000 per year and by the time I was 25 I made a six-figure income. That year I also bought my own home. When I was 31 I had my first child and when I was 32 I sued my very large company where I worked full-time for sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Since, I’ve been keenly interested in modern motherhood and feminism and what all this “lean in” “opt-out” chatter means. Since then, I’ve also been a full-time stay-at-home-mom of two small children, and now I work part-time from home. I understand the dynamics of the motherhood/ work dilemma from many angles.

It’s an important discussion. Not only for me, but for my children and yours. It’s one I’m passionate about having as a nation and culture. But do you what gets me most riled up about it all? It’s not the disparity in wages between men and women working the same positions. It’s not the meager maternity leave and the non-existent paternity leave. It’s not the fact that a woman loses 18% of her lifetime earning potential for taking 2.4 years off to raise a family. It’s not the fact that only 16% of C-level positions (CEO, CFO, CCO) are women or that only 19% of Congress is women or that we’ve never had a woman President or Vice President. Although those thing need improvement.

What burns me up the MOST is when women feel the need to sideline the conversation by making sure everyone knows this is a problem for the “privileged” class.

There are articles gone viral screaming that most women don’t have this problem and let’s not dare forget about it. It’s as if the women having these discussions and writing these articles feel the sudden knee-jerk reaction to assuage some elitist guilt and divert the topic so that everyone knows that we’re thinking of all the women in America. Particularly those who don’t have the choice to step back from their jobs because of economics.

Yes, choosing to step away from the workforce to raise a family is primarily a decision of highly educated women with well paying careers and spouses. I know, I am one of these women.

None of what I have was handed to me and I did not have a connected network of important people or a degree from an Ivy league school as a magic ticket either. I am one of these “privileged” women, simply, because my mother was not. And if I’m not striving to be a leader, if I’m not committed to excelling in my career and making sure more “privileged” “elite” women reach the upper rungs of corporate America and government, then I do not honor her… or any other woman out there who does not have this same choice.

I would rather us stop talking about the women who have NO choice and start DOING something to make sure that their children, our children DO have one, or ten, or twenty choices.

Malcolm Gladwell, the New York Times bestselling author of four books on cultural phenomenon, says in The Tipping Point, that you need roughly a third of the total power to affect change in a system. If corporate America needs to change their policies and attitudes toward work; if the government needs to institute programs that ensure women have support when it comes to the demands of family and careers, how is this going to happen when women do not hold even one-third of the positions of influence? And how are women going to hold one-third of the positions in power if they are not capable of getting there? And isn’t THAT the focus of this conversation?

If you are a women of privilege who gets to participate in these conversations of “opting out” and “leaning in”, then stop talking about the women who don’t have the luxury. They know it, and I’m sure they don’t appreciate being reminded of that fact. If you want to truly help the plight of underprivileged women of America, then DO SOMETHING from atop your pedestal of privilege in that ivory tower. Use your abilities to affect change on behalf of all women everywhere. Take a stand. Don’t waste the privilege that life and hard work has afforded you, because if WE can’t get there, (which is what this conversation is truly all about anyway) what chance does she have?

6 thoughts on “Stop Paying Lip Service to Poor American Mothers and DO SOMETHING!

  1. Great article Shannon. I enjoyed reading your life story too! I agree 100%. I want to help make the world a better place for my daughter. My mother worked her tail off. She helped me have more opportunities by doing that. I admire and respect her immensely.

    • Thank you Tonja. I get a little frustrated when people want to sideline the conversation at hand. It’s an important one and we need to remain focused on solutions. I have read three articles recently that either focus, or divert the focus by discussing that choices about career and family aren’t options for most women. And I say… that’s the point of having the discussions!

  2. I am certainly one of the people who always comments that the decision to work or stay home is one of privilege. I have to say I fully agree with you that the focus should be on getting more women into positions where they can impact the situation we are in. That’s a big reason that I personally could not imagine opting out – I view it as a responsibility to all the women who worked hard before me to continue trying to change what’s expected and assumed. I guess for me that’s what is most important, and I still think that the anguish I witness by many is a position of great privilege. Seems to me that we agree on the primary issue though perhaps not in how it manifests.

  3. You and I certainly share the same end goal, which is to continue the hard work of the generation(s) of women that came before us and to ensure that our daughters – and all women – have choices. There’s no doubt about that. I know I am certainly in the category of saying that this is a debate of privilege. I don’t know if you have read anything I’ve written about this, but that is surely a note I sound often.

    I think maybe the distinction is that I don’t think the kind of discussion that I am talking about – deeply personal, anguish-ridden debate about whether or not an individual woman should stay home or work – does anything to advance the cause. For me the best and probably only way to keep fighting this fight is to stay in the work force, to remain IN this system so that we can amass the 1/3 of the power and thus be able to make material changes. I believe that it’s by participating in the workforce, by honoring the hard work of our mothers and the others who came before us, by supporting other when whenever and however we can that we can shift the paradigm so that more women have more choices.

    It still bothers me that the kinds of narratives I am talking about so rarely acknowledge the profound privilege that allows them to happen at all. And perhaps the key is how one defines the “debate” – it’s the personal, angst-ridden debates that I am commenting on (I am no stranger to that angst, by the way, so I mean no criticism). Larger debate about the issues in society that create this tension and difficulty: by all means – bring it on.

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