Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

The News Media & Working Moms

Two print publications devoted a lot of ink to working moms this past week, with the magazine The American Prospect [1] dedicating a special report and nine articles to the challenges of working parenthood, and the Boston Globe [2] in its Sunday magazine publishing an article about women who out-earn their husbands but still do the bulk of the childcare and housework.

However where The American Prospect presented a balanced, well researched, nuanced examination of the plight of contemporary working moms, the Globe advanced a perilous concept, cloaked in a velvet glove. Though the article lamented the fact that high-earning women are doing more household duties than their husbands (which is clearly troubling, as are the reasons for the disparity), it also advanced this idea without really questioning its validity: That if a spouse earns more money, that spouse should expect to have more power in the family and should be able to opt out of the unpaid household work.

But first, the Prospect's special report, "Mother Load:"

Though this is the same magazine that ran the divisive Linda Hirshman article [3] in late 2005 (the piece that labeled women who scale back or alter their careers for their families as feminist sell-outs), their "Mother Load" package was refreshing and well worth the read. The collection of pieces covered myriad issues related to families and work including:

• An article [4] about how families with working mothers and fathers face more intense career-home conflicts than did previous generations due to an increase in average work hours, while at the same time, the guilt-ridden parents are spending more time parenting. The essay, by Center for Economic and Policy Research economist Heather Boushey, also detailed the penalties women face by dropping out of the paid workforce to care for children and then try to re-enter the job market: "For every two years out of the labor force, a woman's earnings fall by about 10 percent and this 'mommy penalty' does not go away once the kids are grown. Earnings are lower for the rest of a women's working life."

•An examination [5]of how American workplace policies negatively affect families and do not reflect the pressures placed on women who "have streamed into paid employment." The piece by Ellen Bravo, former director of 9to5, made the case that it's in business' bottom-line interests to enact flex-scheduling, paid time off to care for children's illnesses and part-time options that offer "pro-rated benefits, equitable hourly rates and equal access to training and promotional opportunities." If parents aren't distracted by their families and can attend to their needs, Bravo says, they'll be better employees and mothers would have incentives to remain at their jobs.

One of the most powerful pieces in the special report [6] was written by Joan Williams, director of the Center for Work Life Law at the University of California, that analyzed 119 news stories about mothers and work published between 1980 and 2006. Williams found that the media tend to promote one-sided stories - the moms-opting-out-of-work-and-returning-home-because-they-willingly-chose-to-d o-so story line - instead of presenting balanced pieces that not only portray women who chose to be home, but also address those whose employers gave them no choices, those who were forced to pick between a job or taking care of a sick kid, those who face an economic "mommy penalty" upon returning to work and those divorced, former at-home moms who are in precarious financial situations.

Which brings us to the Boston Globe [7] magazine piece by Kris Frieswick. On its face, the piece entitled, "The Job Without Benefits," is sympathetic to women who earn more than their husbands but choose to do all the housework and attend to childcare duties because they feel guilty about working, about leaving their children and about not taking care of the hearth and home for their hubbies. But when you read through the piece, you'll unexpectedly stumble upon this premise: That the spouse who rakes in the most money should be exempted from childcare and housework, and should be able to exert more power. (Women apparently don't tend to do this and figuring out why they don't is the central focus of the article.)

If you go by the statistics in the article, does that mean readers should infer that in the 67 percent of American homes where wives earns less (or no paid income at all), that the husbands should get to put their feet up and let the women do all the household and childcare? "For years, men have used their higher incomes as the rationale for not doing more at home," the article said. "Now that more women are in the financial driver's seat, these breadwinning wives are positioned to claim some of that power, and have every right to expect a more equitable division. But they're not getting it." Later in the article, while describing what sociologists predicted would happen once women began out-earning men, there was this quote, "The more money a wife contributed to the family till, the more unpaid household and childcare work she could 'buy' out of."

And while some really alarming statistics well worth discussing were offered - like the amount of household work a husband does goes down as his wife's income rises - there were examples that devalued lesser-earning or at-home parents and promoted the notion that within a family, money can and should equal power. Like in this anecdote: An insurance broker mother of three who is the family breadwinner, said her husband is an at-home parent who cares for their children, ages 5 months, 3 years and 6 years. "She says that even though he's at home, she still does about half the housework," Frieswick wrote. Women's advocates have long maintained that, in a marital partnership, mothers and the fathers should split home duties regardless of paid employment status. Yet this article comes along and, although it seems to take up the cause of highly paid women, it throws the 67 percent of women who earn less than their spouses under the bus, asserting that, in this particular example, because the dad is doing unpaid work and the mom is making all the money, the dad should be penalized by being made to do all the housework.

While we can take solace in the fact that at least one major news publication is tackling working moms' issues across all economic classes without judging women based on their life choices, as this Globe article and Joan Williams' analysis shows, there's still a long way to go to find women's work - whether paid or unpaid - portrayed fairly in the media.

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