Susan Feiner and Drucilla Barker

(WOMENSENEWS)–The news media loves stories about highly educated mothers opting out of rewarding careers to stay at home with their young children.

Anecdotal evidence unsupported by serious research is also constantly drumming home the idea that women consider themselves the best providers of child care. For example, a 2006 survey of what mothers do "on the job" leads with the headline "Dream Job: Stay at Home Mom." Although the survey claims that equal numbers of working and stay-at-home mothers participated, quotes from the happy, at-home mothers dominate the report.

For instance, working mothers are "horrified" at the thought of hiring strangers to care for their children, they believe that mother’s care is "priceless" and that motherhood is the "greatest job in the world." It’s easy to stay on message: Women must choose between work and family.

But the opposite message is sent to low-income mothers.

The recent debate over the welfare-to-work provisions of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families–or welfare–captures this difference. Congress did not debate the best means to provide even minimally adequate day care to the children of single parents. Instead they wondered whether or not the required hours of paid work should be increased!

Why does popular sentiment portray some mothers as virtuous when they drop out of the labor force to care for their families, while others are responsible only if they work for pay outside the home?

Look to history.

14th Century Debate

The notion that children need the undivided attention of their mothers harks back at least to the 14th century when the Venetian-born French scholar Christine de Pizan (1365 to 1430) defied the edicts of powerful men and put pen to paper in "The Book of the City of the Ladies" criticizing male opposition to women seeking life beyond motherhood. This kicked off a 300-year debate known as "Querelle des femmes."

The current discussions, however–in which mothers who can afford to stay home are often encouraged to do so–can be more directly traced to a late 19th century vision of domesticity in which men specialized in full-time breadwinning and women specialized in full-time caretaking. This idealized household division of labor was generally impossible to attain. Few men earned a high enough wage to support a non-working wife; many mothers were unmarried, widowed or deserted and domestic servants were not able to live with their own families.

The propriety of this household arrangement was widely shared among the elite. It is ironic to find that some of the most ardent supporters of free markets made an exception in the case of women; they persistently called for laws restricting a mother’s paid employment.

Radical class and race differences in earnings meant that only affluent households could achieve this idealized arrangement.

Households with dependent spouses were presented in magazines, newspapers and movies as both desirable and the norm.

But households in which both adults worked for pay were viewed as deviant.

Same Reality Gap

This same reality gap about working parents exists today.

Stephanie Coontz shows in her 2005 book, "Marriage, A History," that U.S. women have always worked alongside their husbands on farms, in shops and in factories.

It was not until the 1950s that anything like a majority of American families featured a "traditional" breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother tending to the kids. By the end of the 1950s many more women were working. And today–hand-wringing over working mothers aside–75 percent of U.S. mothers are in the paid labor force.

Meanwhile, in the first decade of the 21st century, as in the 14th, the either-or alternatives society presents to women have no analog in the lives of men.

Who would waste time urging men to abandon their careers, become financially dependent and work in near isolation from other adults so they can experience the joys of changing diapers, doing the laundry and showing off squeaky clean plates?

The persistence of the debate and controversy only aggravates the stresses that many families feel about how to assure their children’s safety and well-being when they are at work.

High Costs of Care

Most U.S. parents (except those whose children are in the extraordinarily successful but notoriously underfunded Head Start program) pay the full costs of pre-kindergarten day care. A 2006 report by a national child care think tank found that average child-care fees for one infant range from $3,803 to $13,480 per year. In 42 states tuition at four-year public universities costs less than full-time infant care.

Yes, the Bush administration did raise the child-care tax credit. Even so, in 38 states families earning under $18,000 will spend 30 percent or more of their annual income for infant care. Child-care fees for a family with a 4-year-old average $3,016 to $9,628 a year. In 47 states the average annual child-care fees for preschoolers exceeds 10 percent of the state’s median household income.

Adding insult to injury is the lack of any national provision for paid parental leave. Equally as troubling is the fact that U.S. child-care providers earn an average wage of only $8.68 an hour or about $18,060 a year. Consequently many individuals holding these jobs do not earn much above the 2004 federal poverty line ($15,670) for a family of three.

Custom and the short supply of affordable high quality child care have long forced women–even when they worked for pay–to feel torn about careers and parental obligations. But this can change.

Let’s take off our rose-colored glasses this Mother’s Day and recognize the actual work done in the home.

When we take as our starting point the reality that caring work is not terribly different from any other work–it involves knowledge, skills and interpersonal behaviors that can be taught and learned; its quality and effectiveness depend on the skills of the caregiver, not on their status as a biological or adoptive parent–we will be that much closer to a Mother’s Day worth celebrating. Gender equality requires the social provision of this socially necessary labor.

Susan Feiner is professor of women’s studies and economics at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Beginning in July, Drucilla Barker will become the director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Their most recent book, "Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work and Globalization," was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title.