Obama is being blamed for insulting stay-at-home moms (SAHMs), and critics are being blamed for taking his speech out of context.
First of all, let’s clarify the context. The official White House press release calls the speech given at Rhode Island College (RIC), “Remarks by the President on Women and the Economy.” Therefore, the context is clearly a political speech about the economy (money), so don’t mistake this for a speech about families or motherhood. Note that he says repeatedly he was there “to ensure that women are full and equal participants in the economy.” In other words, the president’s end goal is to keep women working because, in his words, “having more women in the workforce…[is] good for business.”
Of course, we want our president to help protect and strengthen businesses and employees, including female employees. After all, who in good conscience can oppose equal pay for equal work and fair work opportunities for both genders? And paid paternal leave as well as flexible workplace policies have the potential to strengthen families. So, why were SAHMs upset?
I can’t speak for all of them, but as a SAHM myself, I felt his speech allegedly about the economy crossed into other territory, prompting many questions. First of all, having more women in the workforce might be good for business, but is it good for families? Second, are “working families,” as he calls them, only those in which a mother works outside the home? Third, if Obama’s aim is making “paid family leave” the standard, then what does he offer those who never get paid and never leave their job at home? Finally, what might be most offensive to SAHMs are the president’s assertions about “high-quality childhood education.”
In his mind, The Problem is as follows:
“Moms and dads deserve a great place to drop their kids off every day that doesn’t cost them an arm and a leg. We need better childcare, daycare, early childhood education policies. In many states, sending your child to daycare costs more than sending them to a public university. And too often, parents have no choice but to put their kids in cheaper daycare that maybe doesn’t have the kinds of programming that makes a big difference in a child’s development. And sometimes there may just not be any slots, or the best programs may be too far away. And sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”
In other words, Obama believes:
- Parents are entitled to (“deserve”) great, affordable childcare.
- Someone (“usually mom”) staying home with the children causes economic problems.
- Childcare should not be the deciding factor in moms choosing between staying at home and working.
His solution to The Problem:
“By the end of this decade, let’s enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool, and let’s make sure that we are making America stronger. That is good for families; it’s also good for the children, because we know investing in high-quality early childhood education makes all the difference in the world, and those kids will do better.”
In other words, Obama believes:
- Enrolling more children in “high-quality preschool” will ensure that America will be stronger.
- The government knows what is best for families.
- Children in preschool do “better.”
His proposition leaves many unanswered questions:
- If working “Moms and dads deserve a place to drop their kids off every day,” then what do stay-at-home parents deserve?
- What of the financial strains of choosing to stay home rather than work?
- What qualifies a preschool as “high-quality”?
- How will government fund enough preschools for six million children?
- What about the other millions who don’t get to attend?
- Will all the inferior (“cheaper”) preschools be eliminated?
- What supporting evidence shows that preschools make America stronger?
- What does doing “better” mean? Better than if they weren’t in preschool? Better than those not in preschool?
Like other critics, I do not want to be accused of taking President Obama’s words out of context, so let me be clear: I am not opposed to preschool. In fact, all my children attended some form of preschool, but I never assumed it would make “all the difference in the world.” To the contrary, I chose to not work outside the home so I could make all the difference in the world to my children.
I am also not opposed to women choosing to work outside the home. My concern with the speech is that I can't detect support for those who choose motherhood as a real, full-time career nor do I sense the president considers a mother’s work at home real work, when, in fact, the SAHMs I know are some of the most committed, hard-working people I know. Think about it. Who else devotes themselves to a 24/7/365 job with no pay for years on end? If it were just about money, these mothers might choose differently. (Believe me, SAHMs would love to “get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”) Ironically, Obama says, “We’ve got to raise our voices to make sure women can take time off to care for a loved one” when SAHMs care for their loved ones day in and day out and never “take time off” from that job.
On the one hand, the President endorses “a woman’s right to choose.” Then by the same token, shouldn't the woman who chooses to carry a child also be allowed to choose to raise that child at home instead of in a government-run preschool? Overall, it appears that, rather than elevating the role of parents, Obama is elevating the role of government. Yet, ultimately parents are held responsible for their children.
If Obama’s claims are founded, then we should all be in a panic, but fortunately many parents are even more genuinely concerned than Obama is about the education of their own children. Consequently, they are choosing to stay home to teach them, especially in the early years. In fact, these parents are going above and beyond the ABCs and 123s. Not only are they reading books and singing songs with their children but they are also teaching them in real-life moments how to be polite, how to share, and how to say, “I’m sorry.” In addition, while teaching them proper respect for authority they are also showing them how to serve, how to be compassionate, and how to choose right from wrong. Moreover, they are helping their children make friends and comforting them when they are rejected. Perhaps most importantly, in many cases these parents are foregoing careers in order to teach their children what it feels like to be loved, held, cherished, and protected. In short, although these teachings are not exclusive to SAHMs, many of these parents are providing some of the "high[est]-quality early childhood education" I can think of. Even if the direct economic impact of such instruction is incalculable, it is certainly “good for families; it’s also good for the children.”
Obama went to the RIC to “focus on some common-sense steps we can take to help working families,” but isn’t the most common-sense idea to allow parents to decide which preschool education plan best suits their child? Conscripting mothers (or fathers) back into the workforce so they can stay on a steep earning trajectory may increase incomes, but it may also leave children with a deep deficit of love, personal attention, and self-confidence. Parents, not the government, should make that choice.
Admittedly, staying at home is not a possibility for everyone; in some homes parents need to work to simply make ends meet, and the president’s personal history is a case in point. Such a lifestyle takes sacrifice and exceptional balancing skills; however, it is also true that the sacrifices and contributions of many SAHMs frequently go unnoticed or are simply expected. Any teacher will tell you that at-home parents often make up the backbone of classroom help, carpools, and emergency pickups from school. Moreover, many of them choose to forego the latest cars and fashions in order to stretch their limited resources so they can live on less and remain in the home.
One line that gets buried in the president's speech is that “when women do well, everybody does well.” I have found this to be true, and women seem to do best when they are given good choices as well as support and validation for their work. In his speech directed principally toward women, Obama seems to provide none of these for the SAHM.