What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About "Breadwinner Moms"
Women and work are making headlines again. This past week, the news channels have all been flooded with the latest research from the Pew Research Center—a non-partisan fact tank that releases surveys and research analysis on American issues, and a benchmark source for information on changes in our society. Their latest report, released yesterday, found that a full 40 percent of American women are the "breadwinners" in their households. The large and loud coverage of this fact is almost instantaneous: Change is afoot! And how do we feel about it? A quick review of about 20 articles responding to the statistics from major media outlets all contain the same phrase: "This is good news and bad news."
What the "bad news" is depends on a few—very predictable—things. Are you a conservative? Then women heading to work in such large numbers is creating an unsustainable burden on families and marriage. If you are an educated white female? It might be the outrage that as women have become an ever-larger part of the workforce, their salaries still lag behind men's. If you are a man of any particular stripe, you may subscribe to the notion that this is further proof of "the end of men," as women continue to post gains in education and earning power and industries in which they outnumber men—nursing and education—continue to expand.
All those points are defensible, but it's critical to note that those storylines relate to the minority (37 percent) of those women who make up the "breadwinner moms"—mothers who, by and large, tend to be white, college-educated and married. Let's call them the "Lean In" moms—the cohort of working mothers on whom the media spends most of its ink. Miles of ink. Pages and pages and magazine covers and talking heads on TV and and feminist calls-to-action and instant best-sellers supported by a cover on TIME magazine.
But actually, the real "bad news" in this story is the vast majority of "breadwinner moms" aren't really even making enough bread to support a family. By far the most common breadwinner mom is the single working mom. And the average annual salary for single working moms is $23,200.The average for the "working mom" we discuss, debate, pillory or glorify the most often? $80,000 a year, a hefty $23,000 larger than the median income ($57,100, via Pew/U.S. Census) for the average American family.
That's a pretty striking coincidence, don't you think? That the earnings bonus generated by the first group of women for their families (largely white, college-educated and married) equals the total income generated by the second group (largely non-white, not college-educated, and unmarried).
That's a breathtaking fact.
But actually, that's not what the Pew study cites as the "bad news." That's my opinion. But what the Pew study reveals is that a full 64 percent of the survey respondents say that this growing trend of unmarried mothers is a “big problem." And I don't think they mean that it's a problem for those women, though certainly you can imagine the challenge of raising a child in American on $23,300—especially in our family-unfriendly work world, in our country with the most unforgiving family policies, in an America where affordable child care is out of reach of many. I think they mean unmarried mothers are a problem for society, a problem for America.
What the Pew poll gently tiptoes away from, however, is the natural follow-up question: What kind of problem? An economic problem? A social problem? A progress problem?
We can't define or talk about or "solve"—or even debate—these problems. And we certainly can't turn them into a bout of privileged public hand-wringing, the usual response to any discussion about "work" and "moms." We can't because then we'd have to have incredibly complicated discussions about race and education and income and opportunity, conversations we have not at all been able to digest and have in the U.S., whether in the media or in our political campaigns—or even in our own communities. But the fact is, we have been hiding them behind the tired, constantly recycled questions of whether women—elite women, we must mean, because the average American woman doesn't have a choice—should be working.
Instead, of tackling tough topics and having hard conversations, we try to turn back time. Reach into the past to find the "better way" we should be living. Long for a moment in history that is gone—when the family unit was solid, predictable. Find a place to put the blame.
Unmarried women. Single moms. Raising children alone. Having children without marrying. This is the demographic trend that is "destroying America." These are the "breadwinner moms" we don't talk about.
We've faced this type of "problem" before. It's the same kind of "big problem" we had when women started entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1960's, posting a year-over-year growth that continued unstaunched for more than forty years. And yet, even as late as 2006—when, as part of a story on the changing face of the American family in Redbook magazine (where I was editor in chief at the time), a wide majority of survey respondents to a Harris poll we fielded said the changes in family structure were "a problem"—and they were due to women's having entered the workforce.
And that's true, right? Women did enter the workforce, for a broad variety of reasons, and it did set off a series of societal changes, and 40 years later—even TODAY—we are still wringing our hands over whether this is good or bad for America.
What if it just IS? What if unmarried mothers just ARE? What if we stop trying to turn back the clock to how we think we understood society then, and instead focused on understanding society now, today?
How different would this list of "goods" and "bads" that are being reported on every media station be? Would they reflect the full story, instead of the story we want to see, of educated, well-paid women wrestling with choices? As opposed to all those women who have fewer choices and options, in everything in their lives?
Maybe we would talk about education and opportunity. Maybe we would talk about the mere fact that a total of one-third of American families (note I did not say unmarried mothers—they are families) are in the workforce without sufficient means to have safe and affordable childcare. Maybe we would talk about the missing fathers. Maybe we would talk about why marriage isn't necessary in our culture anymore, as the institutions that used to define society fall by the wayside-where banks and corporations have that power now instead. Maybe we could talk about the waterfall effect: That children in less-than-ideal childcare situations often go unwatched, or are given insufficient stimulation, attention, nutrition, who knows what else.
Maybe we would have a conversation about how all the change is overwhelming. And sometimes scary. Maybe then, we could move on and talk about solutions.
Instead, we talk about how those women shouldn't have had those children. Oh, wait, no: We don't say that, because that would be crossing a line. I'm happy at least to know that that line still exists. (I will do my best to turn my head and not cite Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothmann's appalling suggestion that being a single mom equals child abuse, because of how much less well that child will do in America, on every level.)
But it's what is implied. In an attempt to make very complicated, very challenging societal issues a matter of someone's ill-advised personal choice.
And then we don't have to do anything about it.
I lay this not just at Republicans' feet (though I will point out that the Pew Center study shows that a full 78 percent of Republicans, of any age, believe single mothers are "a big problem," as compared to 51 percent of Democrats). The Democrats, although "progressive" and supposedly in full connection with Americans who need help and support, have been slow to embrace these numbers and herald them as the TRUTH and the IS of our moment in history right now. Let's think back to the Democratic Convention: Obama may have referenced his own single mother, but she was college-educated, and white. The rest of the convention was a love song to "traditional" American families, starting with the gorgeous and inspiring Obamas themselves: mom, dad, two kids, all in a row on stage with straight teeth, nice clothes, and good, solid education at their backs.
I have been both kinds of "breadwinner mom." I outearned my husband for the full 13 years we were married, at a ratio of roughly 3-to-1, well ahead of the national averages. And now I am a single working mother, defying the statistics. Some would say that perhaps I was supposed to stay married (for my thoughts on that matter, read my book). Others tell me I'm not "really" a single mom, because I have an excellent co-parenting arrangement—and an excellent relationship—with my ex-husband.
But dammit, I am a single mom. But I don't want to tell just my story. I want to tell the story of as many of those 10 million unmarried mothers as I can. I want to meet dozens of them and put them in TV shows and on magazine covers. I want the stories of their lives to be as woven into the fabric of our culture as my former married life is. Because until we realize that some demographic facts are simply changes that are upon us all—changes that are shaping America THIS VERY SECOND, even as we pause to debate and decide whether this is "a big problem"—then America will never be great again. We must take our full measure in order to build our future.
The American family is dead. Long live the American family!! Long live breadwinner moms, and the children who love—and depend on—them.