My politics have shifted wildly throughout my lifetime. Growing up in a stereotypically large Catholic family, I mostly accepted my parents’ social and fiscal, though largely apolitical, conservatism. Studying economics in college, I drifted into a market-minded libertarianism. But as I approached parenthood, I found myself increasingly perplexed by its absence from mainstream economic thought. I read my way into feminist economics, which, to my great disappointment, entirely upended my understanding of the proper role of government in modern family life. I now argue in support of the very things I would have opposed just a decade ago.

Throughout this head-spinning intellectual journey, there is one belief that I can confidently state has never weakened or wavered: that raising children is vital work of immense social import. Motherhood’s reputation for squandering a woman’s knowledge, talent, and intellect—rather than putting them to good use—never made any sense to me. This conviction once landed me in a debate with a college classmate about whether there was anything wrong with getting married right after graduation; she said that women really ought to “do something” with their degree before settling down to have kids. That “something” captured the entirety of our disagreement. Raising kids is an important job, one that we need people to do and to do well. It is something. 

There are a few points that follow from a worldview that sees the value of parenthood and all the unpaid work that goes into it. It implicitly rejects the notion that society necessarily suffers when a mother or father scales back on paid employment to undertake the care of a child. Thus, it’s incompatible with a policy framework that overlooks the contributions of such homemakers to society—or that treats them as a problem to be solved. That has implications for many aspects of contemporary American public policy: it calls for a rethinking of Social Security, which ignores the role parenting plays in its solvency. It’s inconsistent with a family policy framework that excludes full-time caregivers from support. And it’s entirely at odds with our current approach to helping the poor.

If you are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the “something” of parenthood, then it’s hard to know what to make of those who do it full-time. At best, stay-at-home parenthood is a kind of luxury. That, or it’s just another sometimes unavoidable line item in the price of having children. Either view holds that full-time caregiving is a form of consumption that reserves for one’s family what might otherwise be put to good use in society. And both views are wrong, or at the very least incomplete.

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It’s true that many parents (most often mothers, yes) want to take on the bulk of a young child’s care and feeding, even if it means losing their footing in the labor market, in which case: good for them, and lucky for society. And even when a mother would have liked to continue working alongside her domestic responsibilities but felt she could not do both well, while her decision may indeed reflect the hostility of modern workplaces to family life, the consideration that went into it is certainly not at odds with the good of society. In fact, it reflects exactly the sort of prudence that all parents—mothers or fathers, employed or not—ought to exercise when deciding whether and how much to engage in paid work. I think the legal scholar Erika Bachiochi said it best in her recent remarks on the division of labor in the post-industrial era: “Determining who-does-what-when with their peculiar gifts and constraints requires a practical wisdom that mothers and fathers must together employ for the good of their family.” Taking the needs of one’s children into consideration in the search for employment is not an abdication of one’s obligations to society, but an integral part of their fulfillment—and it can involve leaving a job as often as it involves starting one.

There are some, in certain progressive circles, who are skittish about admitting this—it sounds antifeminist to suggest that a child’s needs ought to constrain a mother’s career decisions. But I think most parents recognize that it’s true and behave accordingly. In fact, middle- and upper-class parents often have pretty high standards for the circumstances under which they’ll continue working. They go to great lengths to ensure their child is in good hands in their absence, shelling out for carefully vetted nurseries or nannies. They negotiate workarounds to ensure that their job leaves enough bandwidth for them to meet their parental obligations, whether that’s working from home, going part-time, or shifting into a role that requires less travel. I know mothers who’ve left their jobs for all sorts of child-centric reasons—they wanted to keep breastfeeding, felt their child wasn’t ready for daycare or wouldn’t cope well in a traditional school, or sensed that the stress of employment was poisoning their home life. I’d wager that all parents can think of a scenario in which they’d consider it their duty to leave a job for the sake of their kids.

Recognizing the agency needed to make these personal decisions, however, doesn’t nullify the need for family policy or even policies explicitly designed to help parents combine childrearing with employment—quite the opposite, in my view. But it does inevitably shape your approach to it. If you start from the position that working parenthood is always and everywhere preferable to stay-at-home parenthood, then you will end up with a policy framework largely geared toward incentivizing the former and discouraging the latter. Indeed, many feminists committed to advancing the position of women in the labor market cast a wary eye on forms of support that may make it easier for mothers to leave formal employment for a while if they so choose. If, on the other hand, you are willing to acknowledge that full-time caregiving may be a suitable, even preferable, use of one’s capacities, there can be little justification for policies that guard against it—in fact, you may want to construct policies that enable it.

There was a time when America’s approach to helping vulnerable mothers at least attempted to take this to heart. The first programs to provide cash assistance to poor mothers—the so-called Mothers’ pensions adopted by most states in the first half of the twentieth century to help mothers without a breadwinning spouse retain custody of their children—often forbade them from working for pay. But ever since the Clinton administration overhauled the nation’s welfare systems during the 1990s, the bulk of financial assistance available to parents has largely excluded those without an income. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the modern version of last century’s mothers’ pensions, often requires participants to work (assuming they can access TANF at all). The Earned Income Tax Credit, our country’s primary form of financial support serving poor (and usually single) parents, is linearly tied to one’s income: parents who make no money receive no assistance. Likewise, a parent’s eligibility for the child tax credit starts phasing in only after she has earned $2,500, and slowly thereafter.

This system is rooted in a logic that anyone who recognizes the value of homemaking explicitly rejects; that a parent tending to a child full-time is lying fallow rather than actively engaged in important work; that a mother is of more use to society in any job than in caring for her child. And it actively undercuts a parent’s ability to factor a child’s needs into the quest for employment. By the logic of modern American family policy, any sacrifice that a poor, single parent must make in the service of remaining employed is worth it.

That is as absurd a notion for poor, single parents as it is for their married, wealthier counterparts—if not more so. They don’t have the financial or social resources to be choosy about who fills in for them in their absence. And they are far more likely to work jobs that give little consideration to their needs, let alone that of their kids. The only difference is that without a second earner, substantial savings, or plentiful high-quality job opportunities, poor single parents have a harder time leaving a job when circumstances call for it. In fact, so great is the pressure for single mothers to work that when our welfare system prohibited or discouraged mothers from working, many still did simply because they could not get by on government assistance alone. Our current approach to helping poor mothers heightens this pressure to chase employment.

I once interviewed a mother who opened up about the sort of tortuous compromises she has had to make to hang on to her job—leaving her weeks-old child in the hands of an abusive and reckless partner, sending her child into a daycare despite deep reservations about its quality, finding strangers on Facebook to watch her children to avoid missing a shift. These are not anomalies. Amanda Freeman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hartford and the co-author of Getting Me Cheap: How Low-Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty, told me that the low-income single mothers who participated in her research were “across the board afraid for the safety of their kids” on account of the subpar care arrangements they had to accept in order to keep working. In many countries, governments take steps to insulate single parents from the pressure to accept these sorts of trade-offs out of desperation; our approach is intentionally structured to ensure they can’t do anything but. 

According to that metric, American welfare is largely working: the reforms of the 1990s produced a large increase in employment among mothers, largely concentrated among those with children under three. (Welfare reform did not, however, achieve its stated goal of reducing single motherhood. If anything, booting women off of welfare and into the labor market made marriage less attractive.) There’s no doubt that the additional income from higher earnings and the public assistance that supplements it helps the children who manage to get it. But it has come at the cost of lower quality parenting. Far from helping the poor uphold their parental roles, we’ve made sidelining it the price of their survival.

Far from helping the poor uphold their parental roles, we’ve made sidelining it the price of their survival.


There is, of course, a lot that can be done to ensure that employment does not disrupt a mother’s ability to care for her kids. We could expand access to high-quality childcare; ensure that all workers have plentiful paid sick leave and require employers to leave enough slack in their staffing to ensure that workers can actually use it; and outlaw just-in-time scheduling practices so that parents have the agency to effectively coordinate their children’s care and reliably manage their needs. 

But I don’t think there is a way to legislate our way out of the reality that managing the dual demands of employment and parenthood is complicated. Some jobs simply aren’t care-compatible. Some children have care needs that aren’t easily outsourced, or they go through crises that demand more of a parent’s attention than their employer is willing to sacrifice. Daycares are mismanaged or shut down. Grandparents and nannies move. For both poor and wealthy parents alike, sometimes a shift into full-time caregiving is not just good, but best for one’s child—and by extension, for society. A policy framework aimed at honoring parenthood won’t pretend otherwise.

Nor do I think that the solution is for us to resurrect the mothers’ pensions of the past. Preventing a parent from taking on work that might benefit a child is little better than forcing her to take on work at the child’s expense. Instead, preserving a parent’s ability to exercise prudence in the sort of work she takes on will require us to offer support that doesn’t decide for her. Ideally, that would entail universal supports that aren’t contingent on income or employment status: a paid parental leave program that offers coverage to mothers who aren’t currently employed, a truly universal child benefit that does not exclude kids in the poorest families as the Child Tax Credit does, or a childcare program that includes allowances for home-based care. An added benefit of universal programs is that they implicitly avoid the marriage penalties baked into the Earned Income Tax Credit and other means-tested programs. Where means-testing is unavoidable, eligibility should not come with work requirements or phase in with each dollar earned—and it should phase out as slowly as possible to avoid benefit “cliffs” that currently plague programs such as SNAP and Medicaid. 

It is highly unlikely that even a full suite of these supports would allow a single mother to forgo employment for an extended period of time. But it would offer her some breathing room to walk away from a work arrangement that is interfering with her children’s needs, in which case, it will be money well spent.

Image by Nadtochiy and licensed via Adobe Stock.