By Frank Wessling
For the next six months our news will be laced with stories about political contests, especially for the presidency. We can expect to be weary of it by the time we vote, perhaps disgusted with the verbal wars, even frightened for our future because of the meanness that always seems to flow through these campaigns.
At the same time, the arena of politics is always good for stretching and refining the thoughtful citizen.
Take, for example, one incident that’s already a marker in the campaign between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In early April Hilary Rosen, a woman associated with Democratic Party activity, said on television that Mitt’s wife, Ann Romney, “never worked a day in her life.” If that isn’t the dumbest political comment of the year, it will be in the running.
Mrs. Romney raised five sons. That alone is enough to suggest that Rosen wasn’t thinking before she spoke. There may have been extra help in the Romney household because it is very rich, but the mother of those five boys stayed home to manage their growing up – and seems to have done well. Without a doubt she worked hard and consistently over many years.
To be fair, Rosen was speaking in the context of problems and pressures on women with jobs outside the home. Still, the attitude that “work” does not apply to homemaking and raising a family shows how habits of language can cramp our imaginations.
“Work” is too often associated only with paid employment. The modern American economy requires two paychecks for the average family to pay its bills. Everyone with children knows that real work, real expending of physical and psychic energy, can be harder at home than at the shop or office or store or restaurant where that check comes from. Home-work needs to be valued and supported more than it is.
If we care about families and about what it takes to raise healthy children, we should focus our politics more on that part of life. We are all too caught up in the notion that economic life defines everything. “It’s the economy, stupid,” may be a catchy and winning political slogan but it encourages an unbalanced attitude toward real life.
Environmental impact studies are part of economic development. This is healthy progress in good management of our physical resources. There should be more attention to family impact in what we do.
If both mothers and fathers need outside jobs in order to live decently, then laws and policies should support their family life needs. Businesses naturally tend toward using workers as cogs in a machine because that’s the way of efficiency. Every consideration of need apart from that is resisted as a drag on the infamous bottom line. When family needs require time apart from the job, it’s the family time that usually suffers. And U.S. laws, unlike those in other modern economies, give little support when time off from the job is needed.
The job might also be seducing us with ego satisfaction that makes us less the advocates for our own family life than we ought to be. A promotion may depend on more hours at work. The trip to interesting sites offers excitement. Time at the job might even be a refuge from difficult work needed at home.
The way we’ve let our society develop is not family-friendly. Hilary Rosen’s careless remark was a symptom of the way we casually dismiss the crucial human work of raising children – or make it subordinate to everything else.
Think about that now and then as you follow the political debates in coming months.