I get annoyed every year when Take Your Daughters To Work Day rolls around (this year, it's happening on Thursday, April 26). But only after reading Ann Crittenden's much-discussed new book, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued, could I pinpoint exactly why. Crittenden, like most feminists, sees working mothers basically in terms of corporate cubicles and government largess: Her vision of Utopia is in part a job at a big company with great big child care benefits. She takes a grim and briskly dismissive view of the rise in home-based businesses started by self-employed mothers-even though (as I can attest) this combination of income-producing work and child-rearing not only frees children from institutional day-care, it liberates mothers from exhausting commutes to often drone-filled offices featuring bad lighting and worse coffee.
Obviously, I'm not alone here. As Crittenden points out, the number of small businesses owned by women has been increasing at twice the rate of those owned by men, and almost half these female-headed businesses are home-based. My Los Angeles neighborhood includes self-employed moms working as architects, bookkeepers, graphic designers, personal trainers, character actresses, and corporate-newsletter editors. Some are probably just getting by, some make a lot more money than I do. I doubt, however, that many see life as a female Dilbert clone - but with improved child care! - as the brass ring of working motherhood.
So why is this a problem? Well, because by defining "the consultant or editor who works out of a home-based office" as a working mother, Crittenden writes, the government "contributes to the false impression that most mothers are not available to their children during the day. On the contrary, a substantial majority of working mothers appear to be reducing their work hours during the child-rearing years." What the government should do, she thinks, is follow the example of France, where all mothers get free health care and cash allowances for each child: "Everyone who has ever studied family policy comes away from France with the same blissful expression that one would wear after a great meal."
That expression might change to a grimace of indigestion once they chew on the reality of France's estate tax - which kicks in on measly inheritances of $9,000 and ratchets up to a top rate f 60 percent, but never mind. It is true that working mothers typically reduce their hours. I don't usually enter my home office before 10:30 a.m., and most afternoons I pick up my 6th-grade daughter from school by 3 p.m. I often return phone calls while making dinner, put in a few hours writing on the weekends while she's visiting her father, and that's basically it. But my daughter sees that work and home life with children can be integrated. I saw the same thing 30 years ago, when my own single mother set up her real estate business in the dining room. That, and hearing her casually recall that she used to apply for (and often get) the better-paying "men wanted" ads in the sexist bad old days, was a far more inspiring career example than visiting her at some dreary, fluorescent-lit office.
There are people who accept rules and people who fight them. But there's something to be said for my mother's way, which was to just ignore them. She made good money setting her own hours in real estate, while raising children. And I make good money setting my own hours writing while raising my daughter - as much as the typical full-time staff writer at a big-city newspaper, not that I want anyone to stop springing for lunch. Skeptical 9-to-6ers dismiss home-based work as rife with interruptions, but here's a weird little truth of the e-mail age: There are days around here when the phone just doesn't ring. Certainly I'm never interrupted by a supervisor telling me what to write about, or when to take my vacation, or how often I'm allowed to stay home with a sick child.
Plus I'm diversified. If I were to lose any one of my regular freelance gigs, I'd be unhappy. But unlike the laid-off staffer, my income wouldn't suddenly plummet to zero. In a world of constant corporate downsizing, anyone who doesn't realize this is sadly out of date. A few years ago, a veteran editor doing some consulting for a local mid-sized newspaper offered me a staff job. Knowing the paper's legendary cheapness, I explained that I doubted they'd be able to come up with as much money I made freelancing - and it would have to be a lot more for me to even bother thinking about it. "Why would it have to be more?" he asked, sounding genuinely shocked. "What about the security?" Now I was shocked. This guy had been in the business 50 years, witnessing God knows how many tanking media enterprises and in-with-the-new, out-with-the-old staff reorganizations, and he still could use the words "security" and "newspapers" in the same sentence without laughing.
There's more security in being a part-time working mother married to a steadily employed husband, as Crittenden well knows, although the situation irks her. A former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominee, Crittenden writes that she's only made around $15,000 per year freelancing since she left the Times in 1983 to raise her son. Her credentials are far more impressive than mine. So why does she make so much less money?
One reason might be that she lists The Nation, Working Woman, and McCall's as magazines that have published her articles. I know from hard experience that no institution places the fascist boot so firmly on the face of the freelance writer as side-of-the-angels leftist rah-rah sheets and the pecky henhouses of women's magazines. I only started to make real money after I gave up trying to work with either. But of course the real reason Crittenden isn't cashing in is that she hasn't needed to make more.
"It is especially below the belt," she writes, "for an unmarried, childless woman to say to a mother's husband, as an acquaintance once said to mine, 'I wish some man would support me while I write a book.'" Yes, that is below the belt, because it goes straight to the guts of a fallacy in Crittenden's polemic - that she unfairly lost money when she quit full-time work to raise her son. But she's stayed married and her husband has evidently stayed employed. If, as Crittenden convincingly argues in her discussion on divorce, marriage is a partnership and what a working husband earns should belong equally to his non-working wife, she doesn't have much to complain about.
It is true that years of this can make a person soft, and leave long-married and unemployed (or part-time working) mothers in the lurch. Crittenden makes strong and valid points about how unfair and inadequate most child support payments are to divorced mothers. "The middle-class professional mother who has...cut back on her career for the sake of her family quickly discovers that when it comes to divorce, no good deed goes unpunished," she notes in the book. I didn't have a chance to find out personally; my husband left when our daughter was less than a year old, and that's a big reason I make more than $15,000 a year - I have to. I get a decent amount of child support, but the vast majority of our daughter's expenses depends on what I earn. That I earn it setting my own hours and on my own terms, however, doesn't strike me as a giant social problem.