Whether a woman’s place is at home or work was once purely debate fodder for the mommy wars. But recent laws and proposed policies seem aimed at pressuring moms to “lean in” to the workforce. Sadly, politicians, lawmakers and judges have turned their backs on stay-at-home parents.
I spent years working long hours as an attorney in New York City. After I had put together the down payment for our home and socked away some retirement money, I became a stay-at-home mom and began building a part-time writing career. Twenty years into the marriage, my husband had an affair and filed for divorce. Our children were 7 and 12 years old.
I soon learned that family courts are not family-friendly, particularly for women who chose to lean out. Reeling from the shock, I lost nearly 40 pounds. During one early court appearance, my first of several female judges peered over her spectacles and told me I needed a job. I fought back to remain home with my children.
I also fought for my house and, after years in divorce court, thankfully received it. I also got a hefty mortgage and bill for attorneys’ fees. I was booted off the family health care plan. My last female judge ended alimony after two years and slashed child support, imputing annual income to me of $200,000. I was 53, unemployed and hadn’t practiced law in 10 years. It was early 2009, and the job market was one of the tightest for lawyers in decades. Low-paying temp work was all I could find. Although responsible for the children’s college, my ex-husband earned more than half-a-million dollars.
But nothing crushed me more than the judge questioning my choices as a mother.
Stay-at-home moms have a choice, too
When I took the witness stand, she asked me what I did with my days to be productive, why I wanted to stay home and not work, and whether therapists suggested I’d be better off working. Smears aside, the valuation of duties performed and hours worked by stay-at-home moms equates to about $160,000 annually, according to a 2018 Salary.com study.
In 2000, just a couple years before my divorce, 15% of American parents stayed at home. Now, they make up 18% of parents, or more than 11 million people, according to Pew data. While the number of stay-at-home dads has grown, the vast majority of stay-at-home parents — 83% — are women.
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Permanent alimony is dying out in favor of rehabilitative alimony — covering time for stay-at-home parents, mostly moms, to brush up on skills and find employment. Some states limit or are reforming alimony entirely.
Yet most mothers want to raise their own children.
According to an analysis of the 2017 American Community Survey by the Institute for Family Studies, 63% of married mothers prefer working part-time or not at all, while only 28% desire full-time work, with 9% undecided. Far more married mothers with children at home work full-time (45%) than those who want to (28%), undoubtedly influenced by the two-income trap — economic policies forcing both parents to work in order to afford a middle-class lifestyle, or merely make ends meet.
Make it easier to stay at home
Divorce courts seem determined to “rehabilitate” stay-at-home parents. Democratic politicians on the 2020 campaign trail are promising universal day care. It’s one thing to help mothers who want or need to work outside the home, quite another to force those who want to raise their own children into the job market by promoting laws and policies that invalidate choice. The current administration’s emphasis on so-called family values has done nothing to help the bias against stay-at-home parents, either.
I begged my last judge to understand how much I valued my role raising little girls to become responsible, strong and compassionate women. Where was respect for my choice? And why was I forced to defend it? The only choice respected in the courtroom was my husband’s desire to end the marriage, move on with another woman, and force me to be a single mother.
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When married women without children were surveyed by the Institute for Family Studies, 43% said they preferred full-time work. Among women with children, the percentage dropped to 28%. Parenting is exhausting, but many parents find it more rewarding than bringing home a paycheck. Why aren’t lawmakers and politicians listening?
In her manifesto, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," Sheryl Sandberg writes that she respects stay-at-home parents, but she suggests that women cannot achieve true equality unless more professional women lean in by remaining in the workforce or returning quickly after having children. Which is it?
Better child care, helpful husbands and diversity-oriented employers will help more women lean in, Sandberg says. But what if they don’t want to, even with those benefits? “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone,” she writes.
But not all women want to be like her. I didn’t. And I was shamed for it.
In her divorce decision, my last judge wrote that I had shirked my responsibility to support my children and become self-supporting. She had no harsh words for my ex-husband. But my choice, one my then husband and I made together after I had already worked long hours contributing to the family coffers, was deemed inferior.
Today, women are more likely to become mothers compared with a decade ago. This makes family law developments and political agendas even more troubling.
Where does this leave stay-at-home parents who don't have the resources of MacKenzie Bezos? Vulnerable and without a tribe. Eleven million strong and growing, perhaps we need to create one of our own and find a presidential candidate who will protect us.
Beverly Willett is the author of the new memoir "Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection." A former attorney whose children are now grown, she lives in Savannah, Georgia.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Growing number of stay-at-home parents need family-friendly policies