The Mommy Wars and Math

(Photo via iStockphoto.)

In the midst of last week’s mommy war kerfuffle, I found myself longing to dive head-first into the lush confines of an entirely different demographic group — that of nine-year-old boys, for example, or little old ladies crossing the street. No one cares much how they spend their days. But I’m a mother, and one of the most surprising and sometimes discomforting aspects of becoming one was how abruptly my life choices became part of a drawn-out, national, and often vitriolic debate.

Unlike aunts, say, or great-grandfathers or second-cousins once-removed, mothers, regardless of what they end up doing, can’t win in the public eye. If you decide to stay home with your kids, people may call into question the necessity of your college education, the implication being that you don’t really need post-high-school skills since all you’re really doing is eating bon-bons and watching House re-runs. If you decide to work outside the home, people might say, as someone once said to me, “Not everyone is meant to be a mother.” (Yes, really. Someone said that.) Or, maybe you’re able to work out some kind of compromise in which you spend some time at home with the kids and also pursue a career part-time, thereby ensuring a soft, steady rain of judgment from both sides.

Leaving aside the eye-popping Romney riches and the way in which Hilary Rosen failed to make her otherwise cogent argument with any respect, what’s lost in all the mommy war hoopla is that one of the driving forces behind many mothers’ decisions is written in our tax code. The current system, the bulk of which was put in place in the 1930s and 40s, is biased against families with two earners. The so-called “marriage penalty” is a tax on families that have two earners, and the one who earns less is taxed at the higher rate of the spouse. But there’s more. When you factor in a social security penalty for dual-earner families — plus the high cost of childcare one has to pay after taxes — to many families, once they run the numbers, it just makes more financial sense for one parent to stay home with the kids. And it often winds up being the mother.

What’s interesting about this to me is that it shows how our “choices” really aren’t choices at all. It’s not like we sit around in some big kumbaya circle when our kids are born and plot out the kind of mothers we’re going to be. There are thousands of factors that go into making the decision about whether to don the black pantsuit and zip up the boots each morning or pack up the kids and head off to the library. Some of these factors are so big they hit you like a frying pan in the head, and some are so subtle you don’t even see them.

If we really wanted all families to be able to choose freely which road they should take — both parents working outside the home or just one — we’d need to change the tax code to level the playing field. Even then, unless you’ve walked the proverbial mile in another mom’s shoes, let’s drop the judgment about the choices she’s made.