In the wake of all of these feel-good posts about mothers and motherhood (or parenthood), I thought someone should write something deflating. Happy to oblige.
When I was in law school, I audited a class called “The Swedish Welfare State,” which was taught by Professor Nils Mattson from Uppsala University in Sweden. Professor Mattson was quite proud of the employment opportunities available to Swedish women, bragging that Sweden was far ahead of the United States. Indeed.
As it happens, my wife was a missionary in Sweden, and at that very moment some of her friends there were stuggling mightily. In particular, one couple (whom I subsequently met and respect very much) had a number of small children and were attempting to follow then-President Benson’s counsel to have the mother stay at home. The father was a carpenter, and he was finding it impossible to earn enough to support the family. Of course, they could have elected to have fewer children, as most Swedish families have done, and the mother was certainly capable of leaving the home and adding to the family’s income. But these choices only serve to highlight the problem: most women in Sweden at that time could not stay home and raise a large family without immense personal sacrifice. Indeed, when I asked Professor Mattson about my wife’s friends, he acknowledged with some sadness that their preferred lifestyle was available only to the wealthiest families in Sweden.
Now, 15 years later, the United States has inched closer to Sweden as the number of mothers in the workforce has increased. For many of these mothers, even those who are married, staying at home is not a viable option. As observed by Elizabeth Warren in this interview with Bill Moyers, “one-income families have been left in the dust.” They are at the “ragged edge of the middle class.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, we see that being a stay-at-home mother is now becoming fashionable among people with means: “For the majority of women, working outside the home is still the norm and often a necessity. But for women who have the financial support of a spouse and can get by without a regular paycheck of their own, leaving the workforce to become a full-time mom is an attractive option, experts say.”
In the U.S. version of the Church, whether mothers stay at home with their children is increasingly decided by economics, not prophetic proclamation. In many instances, the decision to enter the workforce is not about self actualization or professional fulfillment, but economic survival (or at least the perception of need). I admire women who forego careers to stay at home with their children, but I worry that my daughters will not have that option.