"The choice that is not really a choice" is one of the oldest tricks in parenting. Anticipating a tantrum or endless dawdling, the parent offers the child a limited set of options: "Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt? Would you like the carrots or the apple? It's your choice."
The child, being a child, feels empowered. He is the one in control; he gets to make the big decisions. But this deception only lasts for so long. Eventually the child grows older and starts to dream beyond his proscriptions. He realises there are not only two options, but a world of dazzling variety. He demands to be part of this world, but his requests are denied. He realises he never had options after all, but that choice itself was an illusion produced by the powerful.
If only his mother would realise the same.
On August 7, the New York Times ran an article called "The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In" - a follow-up to a 2003 story about highly accomplished, well-educated American women who left the workforce to stay at home with their children. Ten years later, the mothers are seeking work that befits their abilities but most are unable to find it, causing them to question their original decision.
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The New York Times piece frames the mothers' misgivings as a result of questionable planning and poor marriage partners, paying mere lip service to the tremendous change in the economy over the past ten years. Whether to work or stay at home is presented as an option that has to do with personal fulfillment and childrearing preferences, divorced from fiscal limitations.
But for nearly all women, from upper middle-class to poor, the "choice" of whether to work is not a choice, but an economic bargain struck out of fear and necessity. Since 2008, the costs of childbirth, childcare, health care, and education have soared, while wages have stagnated and full-time jobs have been supplanted by part-time, benefit-free contingency labour.
The media present a woman's fear of losing her career as the fear of losing herself. But the greatest fear of most mothers is not being able to provide for their children. Mothers with high-paying jobs go back to work to earn money for their kids. Married mothers with low-paying jobs quit to save money for their kids. Single mothers struggle to find work that pays enough to support their kids. Self-fulfillment is a low priority in an economy fuelled by worker insecurity.
The assumed divide between mothers who work inside and outside the home is presented as a war of priorities. But in an economy of high debt and sinking wages, nearly all mothers live on the edge. Choices made out of fear are not really choices. The illusion of choice is a way to blame mothers for an economic system rigged against them. There are no "mommy wars", only money wars - and almost everyone is losing.
Motherhood as a financial burden
Here is how raising a child in America has changed over the past decade. Between 2004 and 2010, the average out-of-pocket costs for delivering a baby rose fourfold, making it the costliest in the world. Two decades ago, insured American women, on average, paid nothing. Today the average out-of-pocket cost with insurance is $3,400, with many insured women paying much more, and uninsured mothers charged tens of thousands of dollars.
The average American woman begins the journey of motherhood paying off mountains of debt. One could argue there is indeed a "choice" at play: the hospitals and health insurance companies can choose to stop inflating prices, charging for unwanted procedures, or refusing to cover necessary ones.
But with the health insurance industry facing little accountability, the burden of "choice" reverts back to the mother. The skyrocketing cost of childbirth corresponds with the rise of the homebirth movement, which, while appealling to some women for personal, non-economic reasons, is also a way to try to dodge the hospital bill (for women with complicated deliveries, this "choice" is quickly curtailed).
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Like so many movements born in times of economic ruin, homebirth is presented by the media as a lifestyle trend, a return to "natural living" much like the rise of bicycling (cannot afford a car), "shabby chic" (cannot afford new clothes or furniture), and gardening (cannot afford fresh produce).
Desperate or pragmatic economic decisions are rationalised with moral superiority. In the post-employment economy, "opting out" is often code for "cannot afford a job".
America is notorious for workplace policies that are unfriendly to mothers - we have among the shortest parental leave of any developed nation, with 40 percent of companies providing none at all. We also have among the world's most expensive childcare (although our childcare workers are paid a pittance). The average cost of daycare is $11,666 per year, with the average cost in some states as high as $19,000. This means that young parents, still struggling to pay off their massive college loans, are also expected to pay daycare costs equivalent to college tuition.
Since the recession began, the cost of daycare has soared while US median income collapsed, plummeting 7.3 percent. The average household makes $51,404 before taxes. A family with two children and two working parents could easily find over half of their income going to childcare. For the average married mother of small children, it is often cheaper to stay home - even if she would prefer to be in the workforce. It is hard to "lean in" when you are priced out.
Regardless of their reasons, all mothers who stay home with children are penalised later by the perception that they "chose" to neglect their career. When they attempt to return to the workforce, their years at home are held against them, considered a "blank spot" on the resume - a blank spot with a reason so obvious and laudable and often involuntary that it is sick we deride it as "choice".
Careers are not pursued by choice
Corporate feminists like Sheryl Sandberg frame female success as a matter of attitude. But it is really a matter of money - or the lack thereof. For all but the fortunate few, American motherhood is making sure you have enough lifeboats for your sinking ship. American motherhood is a cost-cutting, debt-dodging scramble somehow interpreted as a series of purposeful moves. American mothers are not "leaning in". American mothers are not "opting out". American mothers are barely hanging on.
Careers in this economy are not about choices. They are about structural constraints masquerading as choice. Being a mother is a structural constraint regardless of your economic position. Mothers pay a higher price in a collapsed economy, but that does not mean they should not demand change - both in institutions and perceptions.
Erasing stigma - whether of hard-working, impoverished single mothers branded as "lazy", or of wealthier mothers whose skills outside the home are downplayed and denied - does not cost a thing.
The irony of American motherhood is that the politicians and corporations who hold power do have a choice in how they treat mothers and their children. Yet they act as if they are held hostage to intractable policies and market forces, excusing the incompetence and corporate malfeasance that drain our households dry.
Mothers can emulate them and treat "choice" as an individual burden - or we can work together and push for accountability and reform. This option is not easy. But we are used to that.
Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.