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September 10, 2009
In The Village
Exceptions and expectations in the work force
by Orson Scott Card

Soon after my wife and I were married in 1977, we discussed, very seriously, the issue of whether she would continue to work after we had children.

My wife and I were both raised by educated, intelligent, hard-working, high-powered women perfectly capable of running major corporations. Both our moms believed there was no higher calling than raising children.

My mother (not by preference) had worked outside the home for much of my childhood; hers hadn't. We were keenly aware of the sacrifices made by both.

By the late 70s, America's transition was complete: The 50s' expectation that mothers would be at home had been replaced by the expectation that women would have jobs.

As women entered the workforce during those decades, and as the previous practice of paying women less than men for the same job was being replaced by something closer to equal pay, the obvious and natural result was that real wages for everybody went down.

It's pure Adam Smith: a greater supply of workers, who must be paid at the same rate as existing workers, does not suddenly create vast new amounts of money. Instead, it simply inflates the money that is already in the economy.

In effect, everybody had a huge pay cut. I believe this was an unremarked contributor to the rampant inflation of the 70s.

A man who used to make enough money that his wife could stay home and raise the kids and volunteer in the schools and community could no longer afford to live at the same level on his income alone.

For some families, that meant stepping down a notch or five in lifestyle, so that Mom could stay home.

For many others, it meant that Mom went back to work, not because of any particular feminist aspiration, not because she didn't want to stay home with the kids, but because they could not maintain their former buying power -- their house and car payments -- without two incomes.

There used to be powerful social pressure to stay at home. It was a mark of a man's success in life that he was able to provide enough for his family that his wife did not have to have a paying job.

But now the pressure went the other way. My wife discovered that when we went to business events, people always asked her what they ask men: what she did for a living.

(Actually, they usually ask her, "What do you write?" -- as if one writer in a family were not all the narcissism and ego one could wish for.)

When she said, "I stay home and raise our children," they quickly left her to talk to someone interesting.

It wasn't just in business. It happened more and more at Church.

Once, Relief Society was held during weekdays. By the late 70s, it was a Sunday meeting, and homemaking meetings soon moved to evenings as well, so that working women -- now the majority -- could attend.

For some, this is seen as a triumph of feminism -- now Mormon women, just like Mormon men, compete in the workplace and are measured by their achievements there.

I wish it had gone the other way: We should have stopped measuring men by their careers, and started measuring them by their devotion to their families, by the things they would refuse to do for their jobs because it would remove them too much from their wives and children.

It's a matter of expectations: There is enormous pressure to fulfil whatever role society expects of us -- including our gender roles.

Where once working women felt excluded and marginalized, because they were not behaving "as expected," now it's the stay-at-home mothers who feel marginalized, for exactly the same reason.

So there were my wife and I, starting our marriage, and I asked the W question: Was she going to work outside the home?

The first pregnancy took the matter out of our hands for a while -- she had such severe nausea through her whole pregnancy that it was impossible for her to work. (For months it was impossible for her even to stand up or sit for more than a few minutes at a time.)

But the baby came, and then another, and the question came back. Was she going to go back to graduate school? Apply for the jobs her education had prepared her for?

She wrestled with this for a long time. Taking care of children can be tedious, frustrating, maddening -- but that also describes most jobs. The difference was that the time she devoted to her children would be an investment in the most important activity humans can engage in.

But a second income would certainly help us get through the rough patches when I had no income at all.

All but one of her closest friends had, each for different reasons, made the choice to go to work.

I made it clear that I would support her in either decision.

By the time she made the final decision to stay home, raise the kids, and manage the business affairs associated with my freelance career, we both felt keenly the pressure from the expectation that she would work.

And this expectation did not come from non-Mormons -- it came from inside the Church. That's how Americanized we had become.

Nothing real has changed, only the social expectations -- the fiction that somehow women are diminished by devoting themselves fulltime to child-rearing.

It is still true that neither men nor women benefit from devoting themselves to a career in preference to, rather than in support of, child-rearing.

What is the message our children are getting?

Young men rarely expect to grow up to be the sole support of their family.

Young women usually expect that they will need to have jobs outside the home throughout their lives.

Will these expectations lead them to the happiest life?

I will tell you this much: As my children got older and left home, never once have I wished I had devoted more time to my career. My regrets are all about lost opportunities to be with them. And I worked at home!

Wouldn't it be better if we taught both boys and girls to lower their financial and career expectations and treat home life as their real life?

Wouldn't it be better for the next generation if our children grew up with the expectation that boys would refuse to take jobs that would keep them at the office for endless overtime?

That girls would refuse to take jobs that kept them out of the home during those crucial preschool years?

Of course there are exceptions -- cases like my mom's, where there is simply no choice, and, for a time, both parents must earn money.

(And I did learn the editing trade by proofreading the dissertations my mother used to type to bring in extra income.)

Yet neither of my parents had a "career." They worked hard at whatever job they were doing. But they knew that who they were was not some job title. They were Dad and Mom. Now, long retired, they still are.

What a blessing for our children if we kept the distinction between exceptions and expectations crystal clear.

In fact, isn't the primary business of the Church to make a clear division between all the expectations of the Lord and the expectations of the increasingly corrupt society surrounding us?

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