Natalie Brown: A Latter-day Saint feminism for the 21st century

It’s time to pay stay-at-home parents because, it turns out, children are assets for America.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

I began to appreciate The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ emphasis on motherhood when I became a mother.

As a young woman, I chafed at the prescription that women should be mothers and were defined by motherhood. I still do. I am, of course, more than a mother, and intensive motherhood is but a short period of my life. And yet, the church was the only institution in my life in which motherhood was construed as enough once I became one and faced the overwhelming reality of caring for a dependent, living being.

Every parent knows that caring for a child is never-ending work. This work can be partially outsourced to nannies, grandparents, day care centers or schools, but it does not disappear. At day’s end, you can do it yourself, rely on the unpaid labor of a family member, or pay someone to help.

The uncomfortable reality I faced as a new mom and lawyer in Washington, D.C., was that I could only work my job as a law associate by paying other people to care for my child — people who were almost always minority women, sometimes with young children of their own. My career romance was built on racial, gender and class hierarchy as well as my own mother’s decision to forgo her career to raise me.

By the time my first child turned 1, I decided that I wanted to be a present parent in my kids’ lives. Although I had generous maternity leave, even the best of such benefits is inadequate to address the ongoing needs of parents employed outside the home. Both of my eventual children became even more work as they aged. Neither had the physical maturity to spend a full day in child care, and one eventually struggled even with full-day kindergarten. My children did not fit into society’s road map for balancing career and family. What child does?

The church prioritized parenting

I left my job in big law and became a stay-at-home mother in Colorado for several years. I knew that stay-at-home parents lacked respect. I had hesitated to become a mother, because our society does not value or pay for the intelligence of the people who rear our children as much as it does those who use our grown children to run their offices and factories.

Often, a parent stays home out of economic necessity: Child care may cost more than one’s potential income. Other people frame stay-at-home parenthood as a luxury or choice. But no matter how we frame it, caregiving is hard work that someone must do.

As much as I had loathed being defined by motherhood within the church, the church was the only institution in my life that prioritized parenting or implied that women should have adequate resources to parent without having to seek other paid labor. I was unexpectedly grateful and relieved. I also uncomfortably realized that I had bought into the notion that parental labor did not constitute important work or require skill and expertise because it was unpaid.

Even the church, however, stops short of financially supporting many of its members who are stay-at-home parents, although it is arguably not its role to do so. The family proclamation uncritically mirrors the American assumption that children should be supported primarily by a (male) parent in the workforce or, if necessary, extended family. It does not reference a collective economic responsibility for the well-being of children.

I was unprepared for the negative consequences of not holding a wage-earning job. I lost years of Social Security and income. I struggled to provide preschool and other activities for my children because we had one income in a two-income world. I spent most days without contact with adult friends, usually meeting only nannies or grandparents at the playground. It’s not so much that it’s unsafe to send children to play in my neighborhood. It’s more that there are simply few children left with whom to play.

In America’s predominant viewpoint, parents are not workers. They do not deserve our support. Children are luxury choices even as (or because) the cost of rearing them has climbed so high due in part to our policies. Unsurprisingly, growing numbers of people are choosing to forgo parenthood in a society that does not value the work of parenting.

There are consequences, however, to declining birthrates and the issues like costs of living that drive them. In my area, school enrollments have dropped. Nearly every industry seems to have a labor shortage. It is difficult to visit the dentist, find swim lessons, ride the bus to school, or eat lunch at restaurants. It turns out, children were never merely luxury goods but essential to our future economy. As Latter-day Saints, we also believe that bringing children into the world is essential to God’s plan.

What needs to change

Many economists point to the economic benefits of women entering the paid workforce as a reason to provide more support for child care. I applaud efforts to improve such care. Yet many areas simply lack sufficient numbers of paid child care workers. As we confront this crisis, it has become clearer how uncompensated parents, the majority of whom are mothers, historically subsidized our economy by rearing the next generation of workers without receiving their fair share of the benefits. Women did not begin contributing to the economy when they entered the paid workforce. They were already doing so.

The feminists who came before me were right in demanding a world in which women can work in professions of their choice, achieve greater financial and political independence, and not be limited by social constructs about gender. The church (along with many other women) was right about the importance of valuing parenting, especially the work of motherhood, even if it reflected the American assumption that parenting work is unpaid.

No contemporary institution currently meets my needs as a parent, so I find myself asking what a feminism for the 21st century might look like that (1) is influenced by Latter-day Saint teachings on the centrality of families but (2) also protects women’s self-determination and equality. I have come to believe that we should advocate for a society that economically values the work of caregiving by paying parents (men or women) who choose to stay home.

In the United States, paying caregivers might mean providing Social Security credits for parenting young children or vastly expanding child tax credits (a proposal recently made by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney). Tax policy should not favor parents who work outside the home over those who choose to more directly rear their own children. Paying caregivers could also mean shifting more funding into services that primarily benefit families, including preschools, higher education and school lunches.

Economically valuing caregivers more fully requires political action, but we can also better respect the work of caregiving in contexts like church. Too often, communities have assumed that women’s labor should be free. While we sometimes recognize the need for the church to pay for things like investment services or church education employees, women (and men) are often assigned to time-consuming volunteer positions that require expertise to be done well. We should take a hard look about whether a volunteer request is appropriate or perpetuates a system in which gendered labor remains uncompensated. We should also consider using excess tithing money to provide community centers, preschools and other services that make parenting a little easier.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the church or her employer.

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