A mother's place is in the work force?


BOSTON -- In the rush to overhaul welfare, we must have missed the eulogy hidden in all the rhetoric. After all, this policy-making isn't just about ending welfare as we know it. It marks the end of a long cultural debate about motherhood as we knew it.

Democrats and Republicans, Senate and House, left and right, are wrangling over the details. But they have already arrived at TC consensus as radical as it is unacknowledged. It's a consensus that says: A mother's place is in the work force.

The Democrats called their plan "Work First." They labeled the Republicans' plan "Home Alone." But no one in this rancorous session argued that poor mothers should be at home with their children. Rather, they were arguing about child-care funds, about whether anyone would be with those children.

To consider how profound a shift this is, just look back to the origins of welfare. Over half a century ago, the program was deliberately set up to enable widows to care for their children. It purposely discouraged them from going to work. People assumed that children should be with their mothers and that it was pound-foolish to pay others to care for these young. Mothers knew best.

Fast-forward to the 1950s when the cultural pressures were overwhelmingly in favor of full-time motherhood. Fast-forward to the late 1960s when the women's movement first broke through those domestic boundaries. Even then, feminists self-consciously, deliberately, insisted that they were in favor of choice: a woman's choice to stay home or go to work.

Fast-forward again, at dizzying speed, through the 1970s and 1980s when a tidal wave of mothers went to work, not to exercise their choice, but because they had no choice. They entered a work world that remains to this day resolutely hostile to family life.

In a world of working mothers, we have arrived at the point where there is virtually no public support for AFDC. Indeed the women struggling hardest at the lowest-paying jobs are often the most angry at paying taxes for others to stay home. This anger is the real "mommy war" in America.

The ideal of motherhood -- the images and the emotions wrapped up in the age-old portrait of mother and child -- makes this a tender subject, too tender to be dismissed in public corridors. It's never explicitly said that children are not better off with their mothers.

Indeed in the welfare debate, it is remarkable how rarely the word "mother" is heard unless it is preceded by the phrase "teen-age" or "unwed." The preferred phrase is "people on welfare" and occasionally "able-bodied recipients" -- as if AFDC had suddenly become an equal-opportunity program.

"People," said Newt Gingrich, "ought to have to do something for any resources they get if they are able-bodied under the age of retirement."

"I want a comprehensive welfare bill," said Phil Gramm, "that asks the people riding in the wagon to get out of the wagon and help the rest of us pull."

So much for the old button that read "Every mother is a working mother." These "people" are not doing "something." They are burdensome passengers in the wagon.

A mother to be proud of

The message about what constitutes good motherhood circa 1995 is clear. This summer, Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, waxing poetically about welfare reform, talked about the proud look in a child's eyes when his mother went off to her first job. Was that child 15 or 2? Does it still matter?

So too, Bill Clinton, who initiated the movement to "end welfare as we know it," talks regularly about "parental responsibility." But "parental responsibility" for a poor mother now includes a job.

We continue to praise middle-class women who leave the work force for child-rearing. No leaders worth their re-election would demean these women or preach that they are somehow "irresponsible." But we insist that poor women leave their children for work.

Rather than acknowledging any conflict in these messages, we divide the two groups of unemployed mothers -- not by class or by fate or by a husband's paycheck -- into moral categories. The one virtuous, the other promiscuous, lazy, maybe neglectful. We would rather not know how many of today's AFDC mothers were yesterday's married mothers.

There's no doubt that we need to reform welfare. And I see no way out of this mess except through work.

But as a working mother nearly all my life I know how hard it is. I know how laughable the supports are that this Congress proposes as part of the package to overhaul the lives of families on welfare. And as someone who has watched the vast transformation in American society, I see the old ideas of motherhood finally crashing to the ground with hardly a wince.

We have come through a great change of mind about mothering. And yet we still haven't answered the question asked at the onset: "Who will take care of the children?"

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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