Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, listens as his wife Ann at his election night event in Schaumburg, Ill., Tuesday, March 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Has Ann Romney ever worked a day in her life? CNN pundit Hilary Rosen, not a Democratic strategist, said no way, prompting torrents of outrage from Fox, Republicans and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who loves his mother very much. Bertrand Russell, in his witty essay “In Praise of Idleness,” wrote, “What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so.” Clearly, between the houses and grounds, the five kids, the Cadillacs, the husband, the business socializing, the campaigning and, let’s not forget, that dog, Ann Romney has altered the position of much matter. Since it is not possible to run smoothly a multimillion-dollar multi-mansioned domestic establishment for seven people without at least some paid help, I’m guessing she probably instructed others in the proper positioning of matter as well. By Russell’s definition, Ann Romney has probably done a lot more work than I have. I sit at my desk and hours go by in which I seem to have hardly altered the position of anything, including myself.
But the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s injudicious remarks is not really about whether what stay-home mothers do is work. Because we know the answer to that: it depends. When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. Ann says Mitt called it more important work than his own, which does make you wonder why he didn’t stay home with the boys himself. When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself. Just ask Mitt Romney. In a neat catch that in a sane world would have put the Rosen gaffe to rest forever, Nation editor at large Chris Hayes aired a video clip on his weekend-morning MSNBC show displaying Romney this past January calling for parents on welfare to get jobs: “While I was governor, 85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement. And I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless,’ and I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’” (Don’t be fooled by the gender-neutral language—he’s talking about mothers.) In 1994 he told the Burlington Business Council that “work is ennobling” and that “we will do everything in our power to make sure that people who are on welfare have an opportunity and an obligation to go to work, not after two years but from day one if we could.”
So there it is: the difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring. Unlike any other kind of labor I can think of, domestic labor is productive or not, depending on who performs it. For a college-educated married woman, it is the most valuable thing she could possibly do, totally off the scale of human endeavor. What is curing malaria compared with raising a couple of Ivy Leaguers? For these women, being supported by a man is good—the one exception to our American creed of self-reliance. Taking paid work, after all, poses all sorts of risks to the kids. (Watch out, though, ladies: if you expect the father of your children to underwrite your homemaking after divorce, you go straight from saint to gold-digger.) But for a low-income single woman, forgoing a job to raise children is an evasion of responsibility, which is to marry and/or support herself. For her children, staying home sets a bad example, breeding the next generation of criminals and layabouts.
All of which goes to show that it is not really possible to disengage domestic work from its social, gendered context: the work is valuable if the woman is valuable, and what determines her value is whether a man has found her so and how much money he has. That is why discussions of domestic labor and its worth are inextricably bound up with ideas about class, race, respectability, morality and above all womanhood. You can talk all you want about equal parenting; nobody is raising his son from earliest childhood to see as the most important job in the world being a stay-home father dependent on a high-earning wife. Nobody says to men in college, “You can be a physicist, or you can be a homemaker—it’s your choice!” Sure, there are fathers who stay home with kids—about 150,000 of them, compared with 5 million stay-home mothers—but not as some socially hallowed mission. Society gives men all the parental kudos they need for showing up at the school play, making pancakes on Sunday and exuding some kind of vaguely benevolent authority. Do you think Mitt lay awake at night wondering if he was a bad person for slaving away at Bain Capital and making Ann change the stinkier diapers? If he was a woman, he’d never have gotten a good night’s rest.
We talk about employment or staying home as a matter of choice, which obscures what it takes to make that choice: money and a mate. Do books praising the stay-home life ever suggest that if it’s really best for children, the government, which supposedly cares about their well-being, should make that possible for every family? The extraordinary hostility aimed at low-income and single mothers shows that what’s at issue is not children—who can thrive under many different arrangements as long as they have love, safety, respect, a reasonable standard of living. It’s women. Rich ones like Ann Romney are lauded for staying home. Poor ones need the “dignity of work”—ideally “from day one.”