How Dare Linda Hirshman Retire!

Posted: Apr 30, 2007 12:00 AM

She is at it again. Linda Hirshman keeps turning up like a bad penny. Her friends at the New York Times have given her more space to spread her poisonous message that the intelligent woman’s place is at the office.

She has two objections to stay at home mothers. They are allowing their brains to rot, because any idiot can take care of children. And they are not sufficiently civic-minded, because they only care about their own children, and not the wider public good.

In that case, how dare Linda Hirshman retire? She is obviously an intelligent woman, highly trained, who spent her career teaching law at a prestigious university. How can she allow her brain to rot, playing shuffle board and knitting and going on cruises, and writing trivial essays for the New York Times? Oh, you say, that is just a stereotype of the activities of retired people. She is really still using her brain. Ah, but doesn’t she realize that the Social Security system is going bankrupt, paying benefits for the next thirty years to able-bodied 62- year-olds who feel entitled to retire just because they personally can afford it? She should keep working, as a public service to the Treasury. She should go back to her job at Brandeis, and spare the rest of us her New York Times essays.

Contra Ms. Hirshman, motherhood doesn’t mean the end of intelligence, any more than retirement does. My friend Kelly has nine children, and she works part-time as a tutor for special needs children in the public schools. Last summer, she taught herself algebra. Yes, her brain is definitely on hold. Surely that should impress Linda Hirshman: in my experience, most law professors, male or female, have at least a touch of math-phobia. My friend Leslie left the legal profession for a while when her five children were small. She now works in a family law office. These women have placed their intelligence at the service of their families, instead of at the service of an employer.

Let’s talk about the public goods produced by stay at home mothers. Feminists of the Linda Hirschman type evidently don’t realize that mothers are producing the next generation. The United States is the only developed country that is anywhere near replacement levels of fertility. Within our lifetimes, there will be no recognizable Italy, Spain or Japan, because there won’t be enough young Italians, Spaniards or Japanese to sustain the culture. American will survive as a distinct civilization because American women are taking the time to create, educate and sustain the next generation.

Her claim that stay at home moms care only about their own little nest could only have been written by someone who doesn’t actually know anybody outside an office. Just yesterday, I ran into my friend Barb at the office of the school our kids go to. Barb was holding her eighth child on her lap, while answering the phone and running the office of the school. Barb co-founded that school: a gift for many families for many years.

Linda might be impressed by my friend Cheryl. She is the volunteer coach of the school’s track team. Yes, her oldest daughter is on the team, so she has a personal reason for coaching. But her time and expertise are a gift to all the kids on the team. And it isn’t as if Cheryl has nothing else to do. Only her two oldest kids are at the school. She homeschools the younger five.

Most community is created and sustained by mothers. More than almost any other experience, motherhood teaches us that humans are a social species. We want our children to have nice peers and stimulating activities. So mothers create little communities for the sake of their own offspring. Our private interests in our children’s well-being, leads us to create the public goods of Little Leagues and Girl Scout Troops and community theater groups and cooperative pre-schools.

Robert Putnam correctly identified the deterioration of community life in America in his celebrated book, Bowling Alone. But as far as I know, he was never quite willing to go out on a politically-incorrect limb and point out that this was part of the price we pay for having all adults in the paid labor force at all times. I don’t mind going out on that limb. I’ve been a working mom and a stay at home mom. The kids aren’t little and dependent forever. We should enjoy them while we have them. They’ll be gone soon enough and we can go back to our jobs.

I’ve responded to Linda Hirshman before, here and here. I don’t have the New York Times and the Today Show giving me space. But in the end, I will prevail. Linda Hirshman is only defending herself. I’m defending the next generation.