< Mother Superior

Transcript

Friday, May 11, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
It's Mother's Day weekend, so let's think about a very special mother. You've read about her. She's a successful manager with a good education, high-paying job and all the right feminist credentials, but when her baby is born, she chooses to chuck it all – at least temporarily – to give little Taylor the motherly attention they both deserve.

She has opted out, and captured a lot of imaginations in so doing, either because she's a hero or because she's a traitor – or because she's just too rich or lucky to be believed.

But, as author and journalist E.J. Graff noted in a recent issue of CJR, this archetype of post-feminism isn't to be believed but rather the misleading product of lazy journalism.
E. J. GRAFF:
They focus on a handful of highly-educated, very well-off white women, under four percent of the American population, in just a couple of months or years out of their 30- or 40-year working lives, the couple of years when their children are infants and toddlers. And these women are usually culled from a sample of the authors' friends from Princeton or Yale.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS] So you're suggesting that there's a journalism problem here, that the reporting is limited on anecdotal information based on the author's own social networks, eh?
E. J. GRAFF:
That's important, because these articles run in very influential media outlets – The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic – and they set the tone for a lot of other newspaper outlets. If it runs in The New York Times, some editor somewhere else says to a reporter, go write me that story, but in our suburb.

And it sets the tone for public policy discussions. And if women are choosing happily to be home with their babies, that's a very private decision, but it's a public policy issue if most women, and men, need to work to support their families, and yet schools and jobs and other American institutions are structured in ways that make that frustratingly difficult and sometimes impossible.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, then, if these stories are so manifestly misleading in terms of pure demographics, why do they so persist?
E. J. GRAFF:
Caryl Rivers, who's a media critic at Boston University, a journalism professor, says that the mommy-wars storylines are an intellectual version of "Thin Thighs in 30 Days" – that if you [LAUGHING] scare women, if you suggest that if you either work or stay home, depending on the slant of the particular story, your marriage will fail and your kids will be miserable and you yourself will suffer, then they're going to buy your magazine or they're going to write letters to the editor or blog about it, and there's sort of no downside to that. It's a great marketing technique.
BOB GARFIELD:
There's something else you've observed in writing on this subject, and that is that there's actually a danger of opting out, because they can opt out, let's say, and then, lo and behold, find themselves part of the 50 percent of broken marriages and then can wind up in a real fix.
E. J. GRAFF:
It is a real danger for women to leave the workforce. If you read these stories, these women are not saying, I am making a major philosophical choice about the value of motherhood and I am going to stay home with my children forever. They're almost always saying, I'm going to stay home for a few years, and then I still have my skills and education and training, and I'm going to go right back into the workforce. That's really a myth that's being perpetuated by these stories.

In fact, on average, they do not catch up to what they were earning before. If they want to work for a while at part-time work, which seems to me entirely reasonable, they are paid 21 percent less hourly than if they were doing the same job full time. And they don’t get career responsibilities. They're usually downgraded.
BOB GARFIELD:
Are these stories going to go away?
E. J. GRAFF:
I think they can go away when we really do have social change. And I don't mean after the revolution. When these opt-out stories call it opting out – what these women are really doing is taking maternity leave. They're staying home for a year or two with their infants, and that's considered a luxury in this country. Out of 168 countries, the United States is one of only 5 without mandatory paid maternity leave, right there with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua, New Guinea and Swaziland.

I think it's possible we will come into the 21st century. There's been a generational shift, and young parents, both women and men, are just not accepting that they have some personal philosophical decision to make in the way that people who grew up in the '60 or '70s or even '80s felt.

I think that there's some attention to making some real social policy change on things like part-time tracks that do not completely take you off a career track, or parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, some kind of child care standards, and health care that's not tied to a single all-consuming job.

I think there is a possibility that this generation is going to say, this is ridiculous, we don't need to live this way, and let's have some new policies.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS] Yeah, I want to leave Swaziland in the dust.
[LAUGHTER]
E. J. GRAFF:
Well, or at least catch up to Swaziland.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, E.J., thank you so much for joining us.
E. J. GRAFF:
Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:
E.J. Graff is senior researcher at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.