Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen Debate Motherhood: What American Women Really Think

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Ann Romney, and her husband Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney listen as they are introduced a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio, March 5, 2012.

It really is sad to see the challenge of modern motherhood reduced to a partisan battle over which political party cares more about women and the American family. Some of us might expect a little more from the campaigns of two presidential candidates with seemingly solid, faithful, even enviable marriages and happy, well-adjusted children. But alas, we are living in a cynical, live-Tweeted world where every comment is another opportunity for immediate condemnation.

Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen went on CNN Wednesday night and said that Mitt Romney’s wife is a terrible adviser to her husband on women’s economic issues because Ann Romney, who stayed at home to raise five sons, “has never worked a day in her life.” Within moments, the comment—which was certainly offensive—ignited a predictable storm among Republicans. Ann Romney herself went on Fox News Thursday morning to say, “We need to respect choices that women make.”

In this latest kerfuffle, Democratic and Republican operatives are each trying to wound the other party enough to make a statistically significant change in how a small percentage of women might vote in November. But we don’t need to wait for poll numbers to get some insight into what mothers think about these issues. There are truckloads of existing surveys about how mothers view themselves and each other.

Rosen’s comment was controversial because it dripped with judgment—she implied that being a mother is not “work” and that Ann Romney can never understand the plight of working women because she’s never had a career. Rosen herself is a mother, who quit a high-powered job as a Washington lobbyist in order to spend more time at home with her twins. But her comment channeled a degree of resentment that exists between working and stay-at-home mothers. This isn’t just about partisanship or even privilege: the data on mothers dropping out of the labor force show race is a far more important factor than income or education. And at-home moms are often just as judgey as Rosen was on CNN. According to Pew:

  • 44% of stay-at-home moms say the historical increase in mothers of young children working has been bad for society
  • 22% say it’s been good for society
  • 31% say it’s made no difference.

And there’s lots of guilt (and probably some envy) among working mothers. When asked the same questions:

  • 34% of working moms said the trend of more mothers of young children working has been bad for society
  • 34% say it’s been good
  • 31% say it’s made no difference

Not surprisingly, the amount of hours a working mother puts in at her job has a huge impact on her own evaluation of her performance as a mother. According to Pew, about 40% of mothers who work part-time and 40% stay-at-home moms give themselves a 9 or 10 (on a scale of 0 to 10) on the job they are doing as parents. But only about 30% of full-time working mothers give themselves a 9 or a 10. This last group falls under a particularly harsh kind of judgment. Only about 10% of all mothers—working and not—believe a mother working full-time is “the ideal situation for children.” Ouch.

Yet despite all of this, working and stay-at-home mothers report nearly equal levels of overall happiness. Pew finds that:

  • 36% of working moms say they are “very happy”; 49% report being “pretty happy”
  • 36% of stay-at-home moms say they are “very happy”; 44% report being pretty happy

Ann Romney says we should “respect choices women make.” Who can argue with that? Well, maybe women who don’t have as many choices, like whether to work outside the home or not.

One such group was highlighted by Pew as not fitting the happiness trend line—single mothers. Just 27% reported being “very happy,” and 43% said they were “pretty happy.”

Single working mothers trying to get by in a bad economy. Whose talking about them this campaign season?