Saturday, April 14, 2012
Eleven ways of looking at Ann Romney
I’m not going to write a huge amount (UPDATE: I'm going to write more than 1,200 words, so actually that's quite a lot) about Ann Romneygate, because every publication on earth has already covered it with not one but multiple stories apiece. I’ve currently got five on my screen in tabs. I’m already way oversaturated myself with what is essentially a minor kerfuffle, and not particularly eager to add to the glut.
Still, this kerfuffle does center around one of my main issues: how caregiving work is categorized. I’d feel remiss not to address it at all. And I have thoughts about both sides, albeit somewhat contradictory ones.
1.) I call it Ann Romneygate because Ann Romney, in this metaphor, is the hotel where the break-in occurred, not the G. Gordon Liddy of the episode. Liddy, the original Watergate scandal's villainous protagonist, would in this case be Hilary Rosen, a political professional who remarked that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life." Just as the Watergate break-in could theoretically have occurred in any hotel (though thankfully it didn’t, because “gate” is much catchier suffix for subsequent scandals than “Holiday Inn Express”), this isn’t really about Ann Romney per se. It’s about rich ladies who can afford to stay home with their children without worrying in the least about the financial consequences (even, most likely, long term, in the case of divorce or widowhood), and who have the resources to hire out any or all child-care tasks, as they choose.
2.) There’s no question that Hilary Rosen’s comment was inaccurate. Of course Ann Romney has worked a day in her life. Many days. Call me naive, but I'll bet that nobody on earth, no matter how privileged or protected, reaches age 63 (as of Ann Romney's birthday on Monday) without doing any work whatsoever, not just single but, cumulatively, multiple days’ worth. Let alone a mother of five. Even if it’s just interviewing potential servants. So Rosen was wrong, not to mention impolitic. Hey political professionals, rather than having to pick apart every sentence before you utter it—and, when you fail to perform this task successfully, having your offhand remarks become three-news-cycle blunders and targets of national ridicule—wouldn’t it be easier just to stop making rude remarks? Yes, even about people with whom you disagree politically?
3.) Sure, I’d like to have caregiving work recognized as, you know, work. So when someone dismissively calls it “not work,” I am obliged to be miffed. People are constantly confusing “doing work that doesn’t bring a paycheck” with “not doing work,” and I’ll take any opportunity to point out that child care does, indeed, entail actual work. Not the hardest work in the world, I'm the first to admit, probably not even as hard most days as being president or running a company, but work nonetheless. You’d think any parent could attest to this. Still, the myth endures.
4.) On the other hand, I’ve probably said something similar at some point. That’s because in everyday speech, “work” is convenient shorthand for “work outside the home,” “work for pay,” etc. I can understand how the verbal slip occurred. I see what Rosen said as less a damning revelation of disrespect for all mothers than a minor faux-pas (or, at most, a damning revelation of disrespect for Ann Romney).
5.) And let’s not even get into the situation that inspired Rosen’s ill-considered comment in the first place. She was reacting to the news that Mitt, apparently, sends his wife out to find out what is on the minds of that mysterious special-interest group called “women.” Naturally, Mitt can be expected to understand only what regular voters—i.e., men—have on their minds. ... Where would I start with this?
6.) I resent Rosen, both Romneys, and the entire mass media for turning this into yet another situation where people opine that only the most privileged women can “afford” to stay home, anyway. Media proessionals are forever indignantly asserting that this is a choice available only to women occupying a narrow stratospheric strata of the socioeconomic tier. First of all, Census studies show that stay-at-home mothers as a group are actually poorer and less well educated than mothers as a whole (many of them, of course, may not have made deliberate choices to opt out of the workforce, but they are working at home). More to the point, I know plenty of stay-at-home mothers of the middle class, women who choose to be with their children even though they have to pinch pennies to do it but also, at the same time, even though they would qualify for good jobs if so chose. You’d think such women were invisible, yet not so far in the past they used to be known to the media and referred to (albeit patronizingly and one-dimensionally) as soccer moms.
7.) I’m a Democrat. But I’m pretty sure I’d say the same thing if the parties were reversed.
8.) All that said, it’s important to note that the experiences of a stay-at-home mother who possesses, for all practical purposes, unlimited financial resources are inevitably going to be drastically different from those of a stay-at-home mother who can’t afford to hire out work. To pretend that insulting Ann Romney in a work-related way is the equivalent of insulting all mothers at every income level in the exact same way is disingenuous in the extreme. Sure, even if you’re Ann Romney, you still have to figure out how to balance a busy schedule (which Ann Romney undoubtedly has) and time with your children, which can be a struggle, emotionally and practically, at any level of wealth. But what you’re not doing, if you’re Ann Romney, or what at least you would not have to do, is the labor that typically comprises at least of half caregiving work. The drudgery. You’re not wiping the spilled mac ’n’ cheese off the floor with a paper towel. You’re not dashing to the basement to throw in a load of laundry at naptime. You’re not running to the supermarket midweek because you’re out of milk and lunch meat, taking the kids with you because there’s no one else to watch them, plunking them in one of those giant fire-engine carts and hoping like hell that the plastic emergency-vehicle inexact replication will keep them entertained long enough for you to grab those items before they start hitting each other or creating chaos in the checkout line. If you’re Ann Romney, you don’t do any of those things. Or I would guess you don’t, anyway—remember, we’re really talking generic rich lady here, as I have no idea what Ann Romney’s actual day-to-day life is like; for all I know she loves pushing a wire cart full of squabbling toddlers through a crowd of frowning onlookers, so always insists on taking care of those midweek runs herself. My point is, she doesn’t have to do those things—or anything else—if she doesn’t want to.
9.) I debated No. 8 pretty intensely with a friend. For what it’s worth, my friend does not have children. Her income, she says, is just the amount she would pick if she could have her pick of incomes (though this, as an addendum to saying she would not want to be super-rich). My friend argued that it’s not as easy to hire servants as I might think. And that there no longer exists a Downton Abbey-style servant class from which to hire. My counterarguments were a) Oh, boo hoo b) I admittedly don’t know that much about life in the Romnesphere, but I bet that, given 8 percent unemployment, it’s not impossible to find qualified people who are willing to hang out in a luxurious mansion all day doing easy-ish tasks for what must be at least semi-decent pay (because at some point their salaries will probably come under scrutiny). Heck, I know ordinary upper-middle-class people in Minneapolis—affluent, but still within the 99 percent—whose lives are made easier by nannies and the like. Notice I say easier. Probably rarely downright easy.
10.) My friend pointed out that Ann Romney has health problems, which make everything harder. No argument here—I’d take almost anything, including poverty, over poor health. Still, according to Wikipedia, Ann Romney’s MS does not much limit her lifestyle, and she’s been cancer-free since a lumpectomy in 2008.
11.) Verdict: Umbrage in a teapot.