WHITNEY: Grammar, assumptions confuse message of Obama speech

If you’re into cutesy monikers, you can call this one Obama mama drama.

If you’re into acronyms, like me, you can just call it B.S.

On Oct. 31, President Obama spoke at Rhode Island College, delivering a speech titled “Remarks by the President on Women and the Economy.” If you want to follow along with me, you can read the full text of the speech online at http://1.usa.gov/10Tyae2.

The president spoke broadly about policy changes that would help close the pay gap for women and strengthen families as a whole, changes that would include mandated maternity leave and stronger pre-K education options. Sounds good to me.

The line grabbing attention, however, is a perceived slight against stay-at-home mothers.

“Sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make,” Obama said.

This line has some conservatives and a bunch of stay-at-home moms foaming at the mouth. Presented in isolation, it sounds like the president is saying we don’t want women choosing to stay at home with their children.

Here’s what the president actually said, though.

“Without paid leave, when a baby arrives or an aging parent needs help, workers have to make painful decisions about whether they can afford to be there when their families need them most,” Obama said. “...Too often, parents have no choice but to put their kids in cheaper daycare that maybe doesn’t have the kinds of programming that makes a big difference in a child’s development. And sometimes there may just not be any slots, or the best programs may be too far away. And sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”

I write for a living, so I have no problem calling out the vague pronoun reference that created this unfortunate sound bite. “That’s not a choice” refers to a woman’s choice between enrolling her child in unsatisfactory daycare or quitting her job. Bad daycare or bad career lifespan – we don’t want women to choose between those two options, not that we don’t want women to choose leaving the workforce to raise their children. Specificity in pronoun usage will getcha every time.

But that’s just a bit of English class.

The real problem here is the perception that the president doesn’t want women staying at home to raise families. That his administration doesn’t value mothering. I’m not sure I’ve been a member of the Stay-At-Home Mothers Guild long enough to criticize it, but there’s a lot of SAHMs (they have their own acronym) who are quick to throw down the persecution card. Not only are they the chauffers, nurses, chefs and accountants of their families – a popular SAHM trope which I absolutely hate, because even working moms and childless people juggle those tasks – but now they’re being dismissed by the president himself. A mommy’s work is never done, and her true worth never appreciated!


I don’t think anyone, Obama included, believes mothering has no inherent value.

I’m nearly two months in to my SAHM journey, and I can’t tell you how many people have approached me to tell me what a wonderful choice I made. Thank you. I know. It’s great.

However, not everyone can afford to make the choice I’ve made. There are significant disadvantages to staying at home to raise a family, especially if it’s a temporary stay. Loss of income during your years away and uncaptured potential income from raises or promotions you missed by leaving – these are real challenges faced by parents who chooses to temporarily leave the workforce. Women are already making less than men dollar for dollar, and they’re also the ones most likely to make a decision to leave their career, ensuring they’ll fall even further behind.

The cost of living today makes it even less feasible for families to maintain a single-income household. Eliminating a stream of income to spend time with your kids is a risky decision, but it’s one that isn’t even on the table for most families. That means we have to make the reality of working and raising a family a bit easier in this country.

That was Obama’s point. Like him or love him, his initiatives should be a priority for our nation as a whole if we want to continue claiming to value family most of all.

Whitney is the Pioneer’s parenting columnist. After four years reporting and editing at the paper, she’s stepped back to spend more time with her family. Read more here each week and reach her at whitney.buffa@gmail.com.