More on Motherhood as National Service

The biggest disadvantage of stay-at-home parenthood is loss of income, but it’s also the most easily cured. The roster of activities qualifying for compensated national service already includes caring for other people’s children; we just need to enlarge it to include caring for one’s own.

Raising young children has until now been considered a private endeavor, whose problems are left for individual families to solve in individual ways. Yet no good solution exists: one partner–-generally the woman–-either sacrifices income and professional progress to stay home with children; continues to work while entrusting her young children to strangers; or foregoes childbearing. Small wonder that the birth rate continues to drop. Equally small wonder that U.S. childbearing is delayed, a trend which the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology combats by posting billboards announcing that delay "significantly reduces chances of ever getting pregnant."

Advice of this sort suggests that somehow women have forgotten to have children. But we haven’t forgotten: we’ve simply done the numbers. Women have children when they can best afford them, which for many is in the early middle years when they’ve had time to save their own salaries and their male partners have had time to increase theirs enough to serve as sole support.

But if we make motherhood compensable, lo and behold it comes affordable.  (How ’bout that?!)  And if it’s important that women in their 20s be the ones giving birth, that’s pretty simple, too: require men to complete national service before their 30th birthdays.

Why?  Because some women who might like to stay home with their children don’t dare when doing so costs so much in terms of career progress: their male counterparts will be a year or more ahead of them when they return to work. But if those men had to spend the same period–-two years? Three?–-in national service, the cost to women would evaporate and more of us might choose to stay home.

Of course, the last time the U.S. paid women to stay home with their children it was called "welfare," a concept now discredited. But the welfare system depended on what was apparently a minority view, that needy people should be supported. This proposal, by contrast, depends on the view that those who stay home with their children are supporting the rest of us by bringing up children who are happier, sounder and better prepared to read and go to school.

This view may be a false one, but we’ve certainly promoted it as a social ideal. Those persuaded of the value of stay-at-home motherhood should be prepared to put money where their mouths are. Why have we delegated to employers the task of determining (through their benefits decisions) whether American reproduction and child care should be supported or discouraged? Aren’t public priorities entitled to public support?

Make mandatory national service truly universal, and envision the splendid results: young men and women serving their country by fighting fires or killing terrorists or building houses or–-raising kids.

What think you, Mr. Rangel?

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