The Mommy Wars are back with a toxic vengeance.
The latest skirmish was sparked by a debate over a proposed tax policy – and continues to mount as the Tory caucus divides itself on the issue. The policy in question, known as "income-splitting," was a key promise in Harper's 2011 election campaign. It would allow families with children under 18 to split up to $50,000 of their taxable income between the higher-earning and lower-earning spouse.
Back in the 2011 campaign, the Tories sold income-splitting as a family-friendly tax break for the middle class – one that they would implement as soon as the deficit was brought to heel. That day is now within sight, yet last week, finance minister Jim Flaherty suggested he might be backing away from the measure.
Why? Perhaps Flaherty has read reports by two respected think tanks that found that income splitting mainly benefits a tiny sliver of the population, and the richest one at that.
The right-of-centre C.D. Howe Institute calculated that 40 per cent of the total benefit of income-splitting would go to single-wage families earning more than $125,000 a year, with the highest tax advantages going to those earning more than $200,000. The left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives drew similar conclusions, reporting that the policy would benefit the richest five per cent of families by more than the poorest 60 per cent of families combined. Meanwhile, 86 per cent of Canadian households would receive no benefit at all.
Despite this, many Conservative MPs, including employment minister Jason Kenney and Treasury Board president Tony Clement, came out last week to say they support the tax cut.
The controversy over income splitting adds yet more fuel to Mommy Wars fires, which keep being stoked online by stories such as the endlessly reposted piece "You're a Stay at Home Mom? What Do You Do All Day?" by Matt Walsh, a father and regular blogger for the Huffington Post. The story, written last fall, was hardly groundbreaking in its conclusions (stay-home mothers work hard and deserve our respect – agreed), but what set it apart was its angry defensiveness (lots of unattributed quotes from "acquaintances" making snide remarks about his wife's decision to stay home with twins) and its melodramatic conclusion. "Yes, my wife is JUST a mother," Walsh writes with the evangelical self-importance of a new parent battling a sea of straw men. "She JUST brings forth life into the universe, and she JUST shapes and moulds and raises those lives… And society would JUST fall apart at the seams if she, and her fellow moms, failed in any of these tasks."
This sort of heightened rhetoric is not just defensive, it's downright divisive. And just like the Tories' "family tax cut," it is usually the privilege of a small and affluent minority of single-wage families.
So this is where the Mommy Wars currently stand: On the one hand we have Sheryl Sandberg imploring middle-class mothers to "lean in" or risk giving up the hard-won gains of feminism, and on the other hand we have pundits like Walsh who imply the act of taking the kids to Monkey Music is tantamount to negotiating peace in Syria.
Neither position is particularly realistic or helpful when it comes to real families trying to grapple with real life.
The weird thing about the Mommy Wars is how oddly irrelevant they are in practical terms. Most families don't make their decisions based on lofty ideas of what society needs or even what we truly believe is "correct." Most people I know seem well aware that there are no ideal choices when it comes to combining career and parenthood; there are only better and worse solutions to what is, for most families, an overwhelmingly complicated stage of life.
The truth is, most of us base our childcare decisions on economics, and then retroactively justify our choices. The subtext of the Mommy Wars is not based on hostility but deep insecurity: Stay-home mothers feel unappreciated and stigmatized, while working mothers feel flat-out guilty. Each camp instinctively judges the other in order to justify its own naturally imperfect choices.
I know very few mothers who've based their "choice" of whether to work after having a baby on anything other than financial need. For many, there is no choice: They simply can't afford to go back to work because their salaries minus childcare costs equal zero; or they can't afford to not go back to work because their salaries minus childcare costs equal the mortgage/rent. And some people (like me, for instance) have to go back to work because, if they took a few years out to raise children, they would not have jobs to return to down the road.
Then, of course, there are the lucky few whose spouses' incomes minus childcare equals the mortgage, a cleaner, a cottage, skiing holidays, two cars, a personal trainer and private-school tuition.
I'm not saying these stay-at-home mothers (they are almost always mothers) don't have stresses and responsibilities. I'm not saying they're not making sacrifices for their children. But when you compare their workloads to, say, low-income, stay-home mothers or working middle-class single moms, the parallels evaporate. Doing all the childcare, cooking and housework (either because your spouse works full-time or you simply don't have one) with no outside help is a challenge. I tried it for three months when my son was born and quickly deduced I'd much rather stare at a computer screen all day – and fork over most of my income in childcare for the privilege. Which is really just a cranky way of saying I love my work.
The debate over incoming-splitting showcases the way that Mommy Wars miss the point. For the vast majority of Canadian families, it's not simply about staying home or working, it's about making ends meet. And for the small minority of affluent stay-home parents who do have choices, a tax break is the last thing they need.
How about giving a break to the families that need it most?