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Research shows us that when government policy makes it easier for mothers to work outside the home, many do. Subsidized child care and access to early education remain the two critical factors in determining women’s overall employment. Not surprisingly, the number of mothers in the workplace increases when school days are longer and childcare is more affordable. In states such as CA, Oregon and Washington where the school day is shortest and childcare is more expensive than the national average, fewer mothers work outside the home. 

But what perhaps stands in the way of more women working outside the home, even more so than inadequate childcare policies, is a deeply rooted societal belief, despite it being 2019, that a woman’s place is at home with her children. Complicating matters is an equally deeply rooted system of oppression when it comes to race and poverty. While white mothers were incentivized and subsidized to stay-at-home with “mother’s pensions” in the 1900’s, black women were expected to work. As the 20th century began, the disparities widened and much of the inequity remains in place today well into the 21st. As the New York Times reminds us, “Today, most families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are required to work — and receive some government help with child care to do so.” Translation: There is a longstanding, prejudiced history in the States that punishes poverty or one’s inability to work, particularly poor women of color with children.


While many women would and do prefer to be at home with their kids, this should be a personal choice and not a moral mandate. Furthermore, it’s a choice a woman should get to make for herself and not because the world around her tells her it has to be that way. But for many women, particularly low income women, it’s not a choice at all but is the de-facto default because they can’t afford to pay someone else to take care of their kids and go to work. 


What’s interesting about this article is how it recounts the U.S.’s longstanding history and conflict regarding the societal ideal that women should stay at home, particularly white women. It reminds us that a moralizing, “It’s best for the children” narrative is so ingrained in American history and identity that we don’t dare challenge it. In thinking about the future of motherhood and work, I’d like to think this narrative can be questioned and evolve without ambivalence in order for mothers to make their own choices that work best for them.

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