Book World Live
Tuesday, April 17, 2007; 3:00 PM
Whether having their mothers focused solely on them benefits children is a topic of interminable and sometimes nasty debate, but Leslie Bennetts makes it absolutely clear that abandoning the workplace is not good for women.-- Review: Women's Work (April 15, 2007).
Leslie Bennetts, author of "The Feminine Mistake" will be online to field questions and comments about her new book.
Leslie Bennetts is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine. Her long journalism career includes daily news reporting at The Philadelphia Bulletin and The New York Times.
Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.
Raleigh, NC: Ms. Bennetts indicates that "only 74 percent of stay-at-home mothers who want to return to work land jobs; of these, only 40 percent are able to find full-time, professional employment. And that's after being out of work for an average of just 2.2 years."
I was a stay-at-home mom for 4 years before returning to the work force. It took me 5 weeks to find a job, in my field, making the same salary that would have been given to someone else coming from another job (instead of coming from a 4-year hiatus). There are at least 10 women from my area whom I can count who experienced something similar, and many more in DC. So I would like to know the source for your statistics. They sound completely overblown.
Leslie Bennetts: The statistics you question were among the findings of a large study of women who left the work force that was conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy at Columbia University, as reported in the Harvard Business Review by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder of the Center and the author of "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps." I am pleased that you and your friends encountered no difficulty in re-entering the work force after a time-out, but virtually all the available data as well as the reporting done on this subject (including an excellent investigation by The Wall Street Journal) has shown that most women have an unexpectedly difficult time getting back into the labor force, a problem confirmed by all the employment experts I interviewed for my book. No matter what your anecdotal experience, it does not reflect the realities out there, which are far more problematic.
Cary, NC: Leslie,
I have two questions:
1. According to press accounts, your book states that women who think they will take few years off and then be able to re-enter their professions are mistaken. Do you mean that they will not find jobs at all, or that they will have to take a pay or prestige cut when they go back?
2. When you were writing the book, who was your target audience? I know you've expressed surprise that the book hasn't been well-received by current stay-at-home moms, but were they the ones you were trying to reach? If so, (and sorry if I sound combative), do you think that the title of your book could have anything to do with the negative responses you're getting?
Leslie Bennetts: According to the study I cited above, many women are unable to reenter the work force, and among those who do so, fewer than half find full-time professional jobs, a problem that can become a major issue if they've lost their breadwinners to divorce or death and can't get a job with health insurance for themselves and their children. Women also lose 37 percent of their earning power if they take as little as three years out of the work force, as documented in the same study, which is covered in "The Feminine Mistake."
The title of my book is, of course, a reference to Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," which was published in 1963 and is credited with launching the modern women's movement. I recognize that many stay-at-home mothers are offended by my title, but most of the ones who have expressed their anger so far have not actually read my book, which is about the economic facts. If you really look at those facts, which I have tried to cover comprehensively in "The Feminine Mistake," I think it becomes very difficult to dispute my argument, which is that leaving the labor force and becoming financially dependent on someone else is a very risky gamble for women, one that can jeopardize their own futures and those of their children. I'm talking about survival here; it doesn't matter which side of the Mommy Wars you're on if you can't afford food and shelter for your kids.
Leslie Bennetts: As for my target audience, I want to reach women of all ages and descriptions, just as I interviewed women of all ages and descriptions for the book. I am particularly interested in reaching young women who often feel they must choose between work and family, and do not realize that giving up their financial self-sufficiency will not be in their own or their children's interests. The media have done a poor job of covering this whole issue, and the resulting information gap was what inspired me to write this book in the first place; I wanted to give women all the information they need to make choices that will protect themselves and their families.
Arlington, Va: In addition to the issue of current economic security, women should give consideration to their long term financial plans when thinking about taking time off to raise kids. Working women can contribute $15K a year to a 401k. Women without earned income can contribute $3K a year to an IRA. If you are out of the workforce from age 30 to 35 and only contribute $15K over that period to an IRA instead of $75K to a 401k, the difference, compounded over 30 years, is more than a half million dollars. That is a siginficant financial hit to take in retirement, and not one that your children are likely to make up for you.
Leslie Bennetts: Many women who feel they are doing the best thing for their children in staying home with them fail to think through the longterm consequences of that decision. If something happens to their husbands, many of these women will find themselves unable to get good jobs and support themselves adequately. When their chidren grow up, such women often become a financial burden on their own kids, who are often very resentful of their mothers' failure to plan more effectively for their own financial self-sufficiency. I have interviewed many people who are angry about their mothers' obliviousness to the economic risks they took on without understanding them, or even thinking about them.
I think kids are the most over and under rated choice a couple can make. I am married to a great guy and am happily childless and plan to stay that way. Do I think they add something to your life?? Yes. Do they cost a lot, alter your life, restrict your options? Yes.
Articles about topics like this just add fuel to the "you DESERVE to have it all" dialogue.
Choose wisely and dont complain. There is nothing else to talk about. We all make our choices.
Leslie Bennetts: Yes, we all make our choices, and we all have to live with their consequences -- but the problem is that many women do not understand the consequences of their choices until it's too late to rectify them. In my own interviews with women who have left the work force and in studies conducted by social science researchers who specialize in this field, most women who quit their jobs to stay home with their families actually do not think about the economic risks they are taking on. They are also woefully uninformed about the difficulties of rejoining the work force later on. As a result, many are shocked by the problems that result in their own lives, and feel angry and bitter about not having understood the consequences of their decisions until it was too late to change anything. This information gap is the reason I wrote "The Feminine Mistake."
Annapolis, Md: I have a 3 1/2 year old son and another on the way. I am fortunate in that I do not need to work to meet bills. I work though because life is uncertain and my spouse could be dead, disabled, or gone tomorrow. No parent wants to be in the position of not being able to provide for their child. Working after having children is nothing more than disaster planning.
Leslie Bennetts: I think you're very wise. I am constantly astonished by women who wouldn't think of raising children without babyproofing their homes and researching which is the safest stroller to buy, and yet who don't think twice about giving up their ability to support themselves and, if necessary, their children. Given the odds, this is an extremely high-risk way to be a parent. It's more than a question of disaster planning; with divorce alone ending half of all marriages, such challenges are far more common than situations in which women stay happily married to healthy men who remain employed and take care of them forever. Those women are actually the unusual ones.
Silver Spring, Md: My husband started a business which was very successful, then developed cancer in his 30s. Thankfully the cancer, which has returned a couple of times, was treatable, and he's doing fine. For me the result was that I never quit my job, even though most years our tax bill is larger than my salary and I could have afforded to.
Fifteen years later with children who are growing up I'm not unhappy about that. I was able to work part-time, and keep my foot in the door so-to-speak. I'm sure I don't make as much as men in my area who worked many extra hours, but I'm happy with what I make and do.
I would not wish cancer on anyone to make them consider how well they could manage without a partner, but I think it is a legitimate thing for a mother (or a father) to consider. I have high expectations for the life I want my children to have and un-expected stuff does happen!
Leslie Bennetts: You know all too well what many women have yet to learn, which is that life is full of unexpected challenges and things don't always work out the way we planned. Everywhere I go, women tell me stories about their husbands becoming sick, incapacitated, injured, dying or unexpectedly divorcing them, losses which plunged these women and their children into financial peril. Many stay-at-home mothers seem to believe that their own chances of encountering such difficulties are slim, but the truth is that if you add up all the risk factors, the majority of women who gamble on economic dependency and rely on a husband to support them will eventually end up on the wrong side of the odds. This is an awfully big risk to take with your children's welfare, one that I personally would not be willing to subject my family to.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Did you work for the old Bulletin or the new one? If it is the old Bulletin, then you have several years experience. I recall it was a mantra in the 1970s that women could have it all: career and a family, and this was in a decade when far fewer women tried both. As more women tried it, many found success, and others found difficulties balancing the two. I am wondering how your own perceptions have evolved. Did you enter journalism being career oriented and remaining so for several decades, and now looking back, how have your own attitudes evolved?
Leslie Bennetts: I worked for the old Philadelphia Bulletin for five years, for The New York Times for ten years, and I've been a writer at Vanity Fair for 19 years. Yes, I have a lot of experience as a reporter! During the early years of my career, I did not have children, but after becoming a mother I never would have considered depending on my husband to support us. In more than three decades as a reporter, I've seen too many women's lives ruined by assuming they would be taken care of in that way. I have been married to my husband, the father of my two children, for nearly twenty years, but I always understood that I had to take responsibility for myself, whether I was married or not.
Alexandria, VA: I have not read your book yet, but I plan on it. I think too many people have jumped to condem you for writing about this issue WITHOUT investigating it.
I know from personal experience that leaving the workforce can be damaging to a woman's future. My parents divorced after 18 years of marriage. My mom stayed at home with the kids for 16 of those years. Fortnately, she maintained some of her education and certifications and was able (after 1.5 years of looking) to find an employer to take a chance on her after not working in her field for so long. Now she is successful at work and is trying hard to get her retirement planning on track!
I have also learned, as I have gotten older, how unhappy she was being at home with the kids. She had a lot of guilt that she was not able to create that perfect homelife for her family like a good housewife 'should'. She missed the adult interaction, staisfaction, and identity working gave her.
Leslie Bennetts: Judging by the comments out there in the blogosphere, the vast majority of those attacking my book have not actually read it, including many of the women using the amazon.com reader reviews as a forum for the mommy wars; it's all too clear from their comments about my book that they have no idea what's in it. I am happy to engage in a substantive debate about the facts with anyone who has bothered to learn them, but I'm getting pretty tired of the hate and rage coming from people who are ignorant of the facts and motivated by their hostility to launch vicious personal insults, which my family and I have had to endure lately. And by the way, your mother's experience is entirely typical. My book covers a lot of social science research showing that working women, despite the alleged stress of the juggling act, are not only mentally and emotionally happier than full-time homemakers-- they're even healthier. I reported on some fascinating longitudinal studies documenting that working women are significantly less likely than homemakers to suffer from a wide range of medical problems. And the emotional health of homemakers improves measurably when they rejoin the work force. It turns out that housework doesn't make anybody happy!
I couldn't agree with you more: I absolutely could not EVER be dependent on someone like stay at moms do. It doesn't matter that my husband would sell every last drop of his blood before he'd let our family fall to financial ruin, I just can't feel so 'helpless' and not contribute to the oil that keeps our family running (which is money).
Not only that, but I have NO IDEA where women/moms got the idea they could take time off work (I'm talking years here) to raise kids and not see that affect their later job searches. That flat-out amazes me...
Leslie Bennetts: It is the source of constant amazement to me that so many women think they can simply opt out of working for pay. The question is not whether you like being at home or want to be with your children; we all want to be with our children, and we all want the best for them. But if you aren't prepared to support your kids -- and I mean to provide food and shelter, not a luxury lifestyle -- you're not being a responsible parent. Too many women find themselves in this situation after they lose their breadwinners, and their children pay a very high price for their mothers' willful obliviousness about the hard realities of life in the 21st century.
Silver Spring, Md.: How can I stay motivated to work when the logistics and time crunch make it so hard? I spent seven years in college and grad school to get into this career and I enjoy the work. What should I ask from my employer? My husband? My child care giver? I need ideas to help make this work. Thanks.
Leslie Bennetts: One thing that can help women to stay motivated is taking the long view rather than giving up on work because of the stress of the moment. In "The Feminine Mistake," I talk about what I call the Fifteen-Year Paradigm. If you have a couple of kids who are two or three years apart in age, the really intensive period of hands-on mothering lasts for 15 years or less. And yet women continue to sacrifice their lifelong best interests because a relatively finite period of time is admittedly stressful. It makes more sense to put those 15 years in the context of an adult life that for many women will span six or seven decades.Work has so many benefits for women besides a paycheck, as I've documented in my book, that it doesn't make sense for us to give it up for misguided or ill-informed reasons. As your kids get older, the juggling act gets so much easier -- I promise!
As for what we should be asking from others, I believe that women should be demanding more from everybody. At home, they should no longer be willing to shoulder the dreaded second shift of domestic responsibilities if they're working outside the home; they should insist that their husbands share the load equally. We should all be agitating for our elected representatives to pay attention to these work-family issues and do something about them; all the other industrialized Western countries put the U.S. to shame in terms of their policies regarding work and family, which are far better than ours. And we should all-- men and women -- insist that corporate America begin to address the caretaking needs of parents, instead of ratcheting up the pressure and requiring ever more inhuman hours from workers. If everyone were committed to working to improve these conditions, they would change in a hurry. As for child care, a good caretaker is the answer for many working women; I was extraordinarily luck with my babysitter, but more than 80 percent of American women are satisfied with their child care providers, so it's not nearly as hard to find an acceptable solution as many people would have you believe. It can be done, and millions of us have managed to juggle work and family successfully as a result.
housework doesn't make anyone happy: I totally agree with the premise of your book, but I think that these sort of all-or-nothing statements really turn many people off. My mother, for instance, is made very happy by housework. There is no one size fits all answer!
Leslie Bennetts: I agree that there's no one size fits all answer, but I'm simply reporting on the research data. If your mother likes cleaning the house, that's fine with me, but many studies show that most people are bored and depressed by the endless repetition of housework, and that gifted women are more dissatisfied with those burdens than less intellectually motivated women. That doesn't mean it can't be satisfying to clean up the kitchen, but if housework is all your life revolves around, it tends to create depression in many women.
Washington, DC: Does your book address fathers who stay at home to care for children? Do you see the same dangers for them?
Leslie Bennetts: The number of stay-at-home fathers has increased markedly in recent years, although it's still a tiny percentage, but the same dangers apply to them. A friend of mind is being divorced by his wife, upon whom he had relied to support them in their old age with her pension, since he doesn't have one. Now she's insisting that it's hers alone, and he is terrified of becoming destitute in his later years. He has made the feminine mistake of counting on someone else to support him over the long haul, and of not realizing that their interests might diverge at some point, which they now have. Anyone who chooses economic dependency is taking on the same risks, whether you're talking about a married man, a lesbian or gay couple where one person stays home, or a traditional married couple. Economic dependency of any kind is a very bad bet in the 21st century.
Richmond, Va: and healthcare is so important and expensive. Imagine losing healthcare and being hit with an illness! I'd never quit my job no matter how wealthy my husband was (ugh, even the thought of surviving by marrying well is unsettling) because I'd always want the healthcare we can only get thorugh a job.
Leslie Bennetts: Yes, and so many women who lose their breadwinners are unable to find jobs with health insurance when they need to. I interviewed women in terrible situations for my book, really heartbreaking stories about not having medical insurance and not being able to go to the doctor because they couldn't pay for it.
Arlington, Va: Caveat: I haven't read your book. Full disclosure: I have two kids (6 and 4), and work full time; I took only 3-month long maternity leaves.
The availability of decent, quality childcare in this country is deplorable. There are too many moms who feel they have to make the choice between putting their child(ren) in the scary home daycare where they watch tv all day or stay home, because they simply can't afford the $1,000/month per child for care in an accredited center. It just seems a bit disengenous to suggest that they just keep working, in spite of childcare costs. Do you suggest that they keep on working and to go ahead and put their child in substandard care?
Leslie Bennetts: Of course I'm not suggesting that people put their kids in substandard care -- for heaven's sake! But women trying to decide this issue often look only at the present-day circumstances they are confronting rather than making a more longterm assessment of the costs and benefits of continuing to work. I have heard from so many women that continuing to work wouldn't make sense for them because they'd only be working to pay for the babysitter, which is an extremely shortsighted and misguided way to analyze this problem. Your childcare costs are at their peak when your children are very small, and your income is just starting to build. If you keep working, your income continues to grow, whereas your child care costs steadily decline as your children go on to school ful-time and become more self-sufficient. Within a few years, the differential has become quite significant, and the financial benefits of remaining in the work force are quite clear. But too few women recognize the importance of taking the long view when it comes to child care.
Ellicott City, MD: I am a physician who decided to take two years off to stay at home with my young children. I was warned that it would be devastating to my career. I did not listen and I am currently not able to find employment. I am happy that I was able to spend the time with my kids. The advice that you offer in your book about keeping current in your field, maintaining your network and taking on projects to keep your skill set current are excellent. I am recommending your book to all of the pregnant women I know.
Leslie Bennetts: Thank you for your remarks -- it's very refreshing to hear from someone who has actually read the book and knows what it says! I wish you luck in finding employment; with such an important set of skills, it's hard to imagine that you won't eventually be able to resume working. But it's true that the penalties for dropping out come as an enormous shock to many women who were simply not prepared for the difficulties of reentry. Your experience is all too typical. Women have simply not been told the truth about how hard it is, which is one reason I wrote the book.
Be Smart: I totally get where you are coming from. I am a recently divorced working mom. Upper middle class. married 23 years. My ex decided to quit his job and move to our beach house. I have always worked and am now able to provide for my 2 children as a result. I am a tax lawyer. Had I stayed home, not only would we be in a difficult financial situation, buy what about health and dental insurance, life insurance, etc.
Leslie Bennetts: Good for you for planning ahead and being able to provide for your kids. I often hear from men who say, "What about when guys decide they're tired of the role of breadwinner? Some of us have really had it with this." Women who assume their husbands will never change their minds about anything are taking a huge risk. People change. I have interviewed so many women who are in desperate straits because they never believed it could happen to them.
Research/Academia: Certainly in scientific research / academia taking time off and trying to come back are extremely difficult. It of course depends on the individual field and at the time in the your career when you take off.
A friend took time off for kids after 5 years of PostDoc and now cannot find a job, either as a postdoc or a junior faculty. She has been struggling with this for the past 2 years.
Just a comment.
Leslie Bennetts: The penalties on returning workers are really extraordinary, across a broad range of fields. Women are really stunned by the extent of the ageism, sexism, and overt discrimination against mothers (also documented in my book) that they encounter when they try to return to work. There is such a strong prejudice against anyone who has spent time out of the labor force; many employers won't even interview such women. I've talked to women who have sent out 150 resumes and been unable to land even one job interview.
Annapolis, MD: Hi Leslie, I'm the mom with the 3 1/2 year old whose earlier comment got posted. I suppose I should also mention that I'm a divorce attorney and I can't tell you the number of women I see who did not work outside the home and were financially dependent. Divorce is a sucker punch to these women and often the first time they have had to deal with financial issues and establishing an identity apart from their child/family. It's especially bad if they also were not the money manager in the marriage and let their spouse assume that role as well. Even if the cost of childcare versus your salary is a wash, it's so worth it to keep your foot in the door.
Leslie Bennetts: The financial planners and investment managers I interviewed for the book all talked about how difficult it is to get women involved in financial matters; so many of them just turn over the finances to their husbands. If their marriages break up, they are in very bad shape. On some level, women continue to believe it's safe to trust someone else to take care of them. For one reason or another, most of the women who make this assumption end up being disappointed, unfortuantely.
Fairfax, Va: To what extent does working part-time while raising children offset the difficulties experienced by stay-at-home moms?
Leslie Bennetts: Working part-time helps to offset these difficulties, but it doesn't really solve the problem. Women's labor force participation in this country is very erratic because women cut back to part-time when they have kids, and drop in and out of the work force for family-related reasons. Unfortunately as a result women end up in far more precarious financial circumstances than men, with lower pensions, fewer savings etc. Women are already ending up in poverty at twice the rate of men in their later years, and four out of five of these women were not poor while they still had breadwinners. Those rates of poverty are expected to increase if women continue the current trend of dropping out of the work force to stay home.
Ashburn, Va: I don't have to read your book to know it is true. I have lived it. My parents divorced when I was 12; my father stopped paying support payments after 6 mos (no deadbeat dad laws back then). My mother was 45 when she had me, so was in her late 50s with two teenagers to raise. I went to college and am a CPA, and have always worked full time. I have been married 18 yrs, two stepkids (who lived with us fulltime and are now on their own) and two of our own. My 15 yr old daughter tells me that my husband and I and her best friend's parents are the only ones not divorced/separated. I was shocked by that.
My mother lived in Sec 8 housing (low income) and lived on Social Security. My husband and I helped with sundries, medications, whatever we could. She did not go without.
I am successful all the way around. I volunteer substantially with Girl Scouts (troop leader and local Service Unit Manager). I think it is so important for teenage girls/young women to see successful, fulfilled woman who are able to do it all (yes, I do do it all). The only problem--my daughter doesn't see how she can be as perfect as I am. Oh, and I have MS to boot.
Are my kids happy and successful? Yes. I asked them recently if they would want me to stay home and they looked at me like I was crazy.
More power to you, Leslie. You know what you are talking about.
Leslie Bennetts: Thank you so much, and congratulations to you! An interviewer asked me the other day about my own friends, and I realized that almost all of my close women friends have successful careers, longtime marriages and wonderful children. The only friends I have who were left by their husbands were stay-at-home moms who had given up their careers. Maybe this is a coincidence, but the men ended up feeling as if the women were boring and not accomplished enough to be their partners after they themselves had become successful. So unfair.
Seattle, Wash: Thanks for your thought-provoking book.
I agree with many of your points. HOWEVER, I think it is unfair to imply that it is -always- a bad idea to become a SAHM.
I worked full time for six years while bearing and raising two kids. Despite an understanding boss, good childcare, and a loving husband the stress involved almost destroyed my marriage and my sense of self. I was exhausted all the time and felt like I was bad at everything.
I stopped working for 2 years and am a new person now. I remembered what it was like to enjoy life, instead of just trying to get through each day. I'm now working part time and planning to ease myself back to full time but the last two years of being with my kids and being able to enjoy life instead of exist in a blur of daycare dropoffs and arriving late to meetings with spit-up on my suit.
I think the message should be that women need to be aware of and plan around the risks involved in stopping work - ranging from the risk of death/injury to the primary breadwinner to the risk of one's career being permanently derailed - not that they should never do so.
Leslie Bennetts: I understand and sympathize with the stress you feel, but I have to tell you that it's too early for you to assess the wisdom of your choice. The best example of this is Terry Martin Hekker, a self-appointed spokewomann for stay-at-home motherhood who wrote a book about it in the 1970's. She thought everything was fine until her 40th wedding anniversary, when her husband presented her with divorce papers and went off to Cancun with his girlfriend. When Hekker filed her first solo tax return, it triggered a notification from the government that she was now so poor she qualified for food stamps. She had to sell her wedding ring to pay for repairs to her leaking roof. No matter what you think, you really don't know until you're a lot older whether or not it was a mistake for you to drop out of the work force. Life is full of surprises, many of them quite unpleasant.
Alexandria, VA: Man here...I find that the choice to work full time in the home stems from the desire to express "love" for one's children, but I rather suspect love is a commodity not typically in shortage where children are concerned. If you don't as a natural organic process love your children in an aching, overflowing, coursing manner, there's something wrong with you. What you owe them, though, is the ability to make rational choices about what they need most. Talking about financial security seems cold and clinical compared to giving expression to your love, but often it is in scarcer supply. And, from my own experience of having a stay at home mom, I think it's very important for children of both genders to see both parents in a variety of roles. That very process of seeing Mother performing in a competent, externally focused way as well as a competent home manager and nurturer is vital.
Leslie Bennetts: In my book there's an interview with one man who talked very eloquently about this. He said he would have had a far better childhood and his parents would have had a much better marriage if his mother had done something besides be a full-time mom. He said she was too invested in him, too afraid to let him make mistakes and chart his own course, and he found that very suffocating. He also felt she was boring to his father because she had nothing to talk about outside the home. We all love our kids, but being helicopter moms who hover over them 24/7 is not necessarily the best thing for them either.
Columbia, MD: Thanks for this book! I haven't read it but definitely plan to. My parents raised me and my sisters with this in mind by paying fully for our college education but making us pay for our own weddings. My mother had seen too many of her peers in exactly this same predicament and didn't want the same to happen to her girls. She worked as a teacher and successfully raised us. She always carried the medical insurance too.
I hope more women get the message!
Leslie Bennetts: Me too!
Southern Maryland: Do you think as more baby boomers retire that women who are returning to the workplace will be more desirable?
What is the income level of the families when women decide not to be employees at work?
Leslie Bennetts: It would be great if the workplace started to be more receptive to women returning to work, but so far the extent of the prejudice against them is mindboggling -- really shocking. As for income level, the Wall Street journal recently reported that the trend of women dropping out of the work force was far broader than previously believed, occuring at all socio-economic levels, not just among the privileged.
healthcare: I've read that medical bills are the major cause of bankruptcies. I broke my arm and the total hospital bill (without physical therapy, which is $300 month) was $45,000. Imagine not having health insurance and trying to pay that. I would have lost my house. If my husband lost his job, at least we can add him to my job insurance. I'd never give up that safety net!
Leslie Bennetts: One of the women I interviewed for the book has already lost her house because of this; her husband got cancer, is dying and hasn't been able to work in years. She works for $13.50 an hour and can't find anything better. Now she has no health insurance at all. She is terrified every day of her life.
Penn Quarter, D.C.: Thank you for writing this book - I look forward to reading it. I come from a line of women - on both sides of my family, actually - who had careers. My grandmother and several other relatives of her generation, in fact, had no choice - they were widowed with young children at early ages and had to support themselves. I can't imagine being the first in my family, in 2007, to leave myself "open" and be reliant on a husband.
Leslie Bennetts: People tend to idealize the good old days, as if traditional gender roles worked better back then, but they often didn't. In my book I wrote about my grandmother; my grandfather left her for his mistress when my mom was nine, and he stopped supporting his family, who were plunged into dire economic straits. Being a full-time homemaker was a disaster for my grandmother, even way back then.
Arlington, Va: So, why isn't the ability to figure out how financially costly this is taught in schools? I recall having to take an utterly useless "life skills" class that was really a semester about "just say no to drugs." Or, if schools aren't the place, where do propective parents find out about this? As much as I'm sure your book will sell well, it's probably not right to depend on book sales for the entire message. How do you think the word should get out?
Leslie Bennetts: People have to start realizing that these issues must be considered in an economic context as well as a lifestyle context; they need to inform themselves and raise their daughters to understand that they have to be prepared to take responsibility for their own lives. It would be nice if these messages were taught in the schools, but they really have to start with parents who are better-informed, and who bring a new level of awareness to what they teach their kids. I'm hoping that my book will help get this conversation going, because the standard debate about these issues right now is catastrophically uninformed.
Seattle, WA: This statement "No matter what you think, you really don't know until you're a lot older whether or not it was a mistake for you to drop out of the work force. Life is full of surprises, many of them quite unpleasant" strikes me as quite condescending.
Maybe some women are blind as to what might happen, but many of us DO think through all of our options and alternatives. In my case I'd be fine financially if my husband were injured or died (good insurance) as well as if he left me - but the chances that he would leave me are a lot less since I'm not the emotional basket case I was when I was still working.
I think you dismiss the down sides of working too cavalierly just to make your point.
Leslie Bennetts: My views are based on 34 years of being a reporter, during which I've interviewed thousands of women about these issues. If you want to interview thousands of women and then disagree with me because your findings are different, be my guest. But my conclusions are based on the facts. I don't mean to be condescending, but anyone who analyzes this issue from a purely short-term perspective is missing the point. And since I've raised two children while continuing to work, I am quite familiar with the downsides of working.
North Bethesda, MD: So if nobody takes the chance...and both parents work...who will be raising the children?
Leslie Bennetts: Oh, come on -- millions of people have raised happy children and built successful families with both parents working. Let's not insult anyone's intelligence by pretending this is impossible. And as for nobody taking the chance, as one of the experts I interviewed in my book put it, "Marriage is an economic partnership, but the problem is that women assume nearly all of the economic risk." Men often think it's a great idea for women to do this, but I don't see a whole lot of them putting themselves in that kind of jeopardy.
Olney, Md: Perhaps I have a pessimistic nature or am simply a long-range planner, but I often find myself thinking what changes I would have to make to support my family if my husband were to die or become incapacitated. To the point of checking out inexpensive neighborhoods near my daughter's school! Financial counseling and long-range planning skills should be taught to all of our young people.
Leslie Bennetts: I too think about worst-case scenarios and what I would do; I find that if you're prepared for the worst, you can cope with any problems that arise. Too many people expect that luck will always be on their side, and assume only the best possible outcomes. Needless to say, most are grievously disappointed.
Washington, D.C.: As an expectant first-time mother who plans to go back to work for many of the reasons you mention (particularly long-term financial and retirement security), I agree with your general premise. For those of us that have not yet read your book, what is the answer? Working part time or from home? Demanding more flexibility from employers?
Leslie Bennetts: All of those are potential answers. Working from home is a particularly good solution for mothers of young children, and today's technology has made that a lot easier. Some of the happiest moms I interviewed had become entrepreneurs working from the home, and were able to juggle work and family without undue difficulty. But I also believe that everyone, including men, should demand more flexibility from employers. These problems won't change until we all start working together to try to solve them.
Bowie, Md: Did you find that there are professions where it is easier to leave and then re-enter the workforce? It has seemed to me that the traditionally female (also high-demand and lower-paying) careers such as teaching and nursing make it easy to leave and re-enter, whereas careers like law are incredibly difficult to re-enter.
Leslie Bennetts: This is actually not necessarily true; I talked to teachers who assumed they could find work when they wanted to come back and were astonished that they couldn't get full-time jobs. And while it is almost impossible to reenter law at the level of highpowered law firms, lawyers who have developed a specialty or area of expertise are often able to work out other solutions, or go into business for themselves. It's very hard to generalize about professions, because there are problems across the board, but enterprising individuals are also able to find solutions even in very difficult fields.
Regarding Seattle, WA: Wow -- that response -was- condescending. I respect your work and I happen to agree with your thesis, but her larger point, which I understand to be that there are some circumstances in which it's not financially ruinous to stop working seems pretty unassailable. Why didn't you give her a "congratulations" for thinking it through and making sure her (and her children's) bases were covered? Sorry, but your response was petty.
Leslie Bennetts: I don't mean to be petty, but I'm exasperated by the seeming inability many women have to understand that you can't make a final judgment about these issues when you're young, because the consequences don't necessarily catch up with you until later. However, if I sounded condescending, rather than just frustrated, I apologize.
Arlington, Va.: Solutions?: Though I do not plan on having children, I am very interested in this issue (as we all should be). Aside from it being a matter of fairness, I have worried about friends leaving work (fortunately they have since returned.) With men seemingly satisfied with the situation and many women at home (forgive the gross oversimplification), where do you think the solution lies? Do working mothers have the clout to force a change? We can't get universal health care, how will we ever get better maternity AND paternity leave and child care?
Leslie Bennetts: Many men will continue to be satisfied with the status quo as long as they have women covering all the domestic responsibilities and, as is often the case, even taking care of the men's aging parents. None of this will change until all of us start insisting that it must. The reality is that in the 21st century, very few families will be secure enough unless both partners share the breadwinning, which means that both partners ought to be sharing all the other responisibilities as well. Egalitarian marriage does work, and has proved to be a big part of the solution for many of us. But it's time to insist that corporate America respond as well, and men need to join forces with women to make that happen.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks to Leslie Bennetts and to all who participated.
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