The Case Against Stigma

Posted: May 17, 2001 12:00 AM
You have to admire Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. The man rushes in where most sensible guys fear to tread: "The fact is that working moms are at the very center of a variety of cultural ills," he writes in the current cover story, "Thanks Mom! The Case Against Working Mothers." "Maybe a little stigma is exactly what they deserve."

Lowry thus joins Rudy Giuliani in the elite corps of Republican men who choose to use May, the month of motherhood, to stigmatize certain moms (albeit in Lowry's case, not the mother of his own children).

The occasion for Lowry's broadside was the latest installment of the National Institute of Child Health and Development's blue ribbon day-care study. The news is not good. Children in day care were, on average, more aggressive than children raised by mothers. They get into more fights, exhibit more cruelty, argue a lot and engage in more explosive behavior. Quality of day care made no difference. In short, on average (with lots of exceptions), children in day care appeared less civilized than children raised primarily by their mothers.

Yet, as Lowry writes, the media finds "a way to pronounce anything associated with day care -- up to and including infectious illness -- a good thing so as to shield working mothers from any bad news." Career mothers, he speculates, "need such coddling for a reason. Mothers who choose to work full-time jobs and routinely leave their young children with others for much of the day are not normal: They are a historical aberration; they represent a minority preference among women. No wonder elite culture treats them as hothouse flowers who must hear nary a discouraging word."

Don't get me wrong. Like most moms, I don't care much for day care, especially for babies and toddlers. I think the work mothers do, whether or not they earn a dime, is far more socially important than 99 percent of what people get paid to do. Public policy has tilted far too heavily in favor of subsidizing day care at the expense of family care. These are important issues that Lowry raises.

But, but, but ... But when I hear the word "stigma," I want to reach for my revolver. What is the conservative love affair with the word? Stigma is not another term for "moral argument." Stigmatizing is the process by which a society literally ostracizes a member for violating its most important codes. It means being unwilling to associate, professionally or personally to the extent possible, with a human being because they are so bad.

It is terribly costly both to the society and to the individual. And it requires a sense of sin, too, not a cost-benefit analysis by social scientists about the negative social consequences of a particular trend.

What would it mean to stigmatize working moms? What exactly is the terrible crime that makes us unwilling to associate with them? Working? But what about if they are not married? Well, of course, says Lowry, those women have to work. (Otherwise they'll cost taxpayers money, apparently an even worse crime than "abandoning" your child to day care.) What if your husband doesn't make very much money? What if he's a filthy rich alcoholic and you are afraid to depend on his income? What if your teen needs new braces while you still have a toddler at home? What if you find the perfect part-time job, and your well-behaved kid seems to enjoy church-sponsored nursery school?

Most mothers who work tailor their work lives to suit their families' needs. Maybe we don't all do the best job of it. Maybe a little guilt is a good thing. But behaviors whose immorality depends on complex judgment calls about circumstances are not good candidates for stigmatization.

Nor is it possible, in any literal sense, to ostracize the majority of your mothers. Sorry, Rich, but you wouldn't have much of a society left.