Friday, October 28, 2011

Why I don't "like" the idea that mothers do the work of twenty, for free

I saw this image posted the other day on the Facebook page of a social networking site for mothers. When I last checked a moment ago, the picture had been shared 2,920 times (including by a friend of mine, whose status update is where I first saw it) and “liked” 3,742 times on this mothers’ site page alone.

I didn’t share the post. I did not “like” it. I didn’t even like it.

Which made me more or less alone among the 700-some people who left comments. I haven’t read every last one, but in a quick skim I didn't see any other commenter who wasn’t delighted with the sentiment expressed in the post. Typical comments—short and hastily typed, as if clicked out between laundry loads, or while waiting that cry from the nursery signaling naptime had ended—said things like “True!” and “Sharing,” and  “Ain’t this the truth,” and “AMEN,” and “Sounds about right” and “Us mums are incredible :)” and “LOVE LOVE LOVE this.”

Not to be a buzz kill. But this approving reaction goes a long way toward explaining why mothers’ labor gets exploited, why mothers, far from being financially compensated for their parenting work, are in fact financially penalized for performing it, to their eventual economic peril.

Oh, that's OK, the comments suggest. We don’t mind! Our children are so important to us. We’re happy to do it! We LOVE LOVE LOVE doing it!

Lots of people love their work. Yet many of them are nevertheless rewarded for it monetarily, sometimes handsomely. (At least writers, who also often wind up working for free because the market exploits their love of the work, complain about it.) Posts like this—simply the new-technology delivery of an age-old sentiment—are one way society reinforces the idea that good mothers don't mind sacrificing. That good mothers are proud of sacrificing.
The post isn’t quite accurate; even the most hardworking mothers don’t do the work of more than two or three people, tops. And not even that on average, according to a cover story in Time magazine in August, which reported that new research shows mothers work about the same amount as fathers—as long as you count both paid and non-paid work, since mothers unsurprisingly do proportionately more of the latter than fathers do.

“ What these new findings mean is that the widespread belief that working mothers have it the worst—a belief that engenders an enormous amount of conflict between spouses—is simply not the open-and-shut case it once was,” wrote Ruth Davis Konigsberg. “… And it's time that women — myself included — admit it and move on.”

Again, I must differ. Unless by “move on” Konigsberg means “turn our attention from who works more hours to focus on what is really the far bigger issue—i.e., the fact that many more of those oh-so-equal hours that fathers put in are rewarded with paychecks. Not to mention retirement accounts, professional advancement, earning power, social status, health and dental, the respect of future employers and the occasional company car.”

Whereas mothers, as even the disliked post above correctly notes, work for free much of the time.

Konigsberg doesn’t dwell on the pay thing. On the contrary, she barely mentions it, writing as if the issue of monetary compensation were a triviality, as if paid and unpaid work were, for all practical purposes, the same thing; work is work.

I, on the other hand, consider a paycheck a salient difference, if for no other reason because even when it's shared between partners, the partner whose name is on the checks is building a much stronger foundation of future employability.
Frustrating as it is to see that overlooked in a Time cover story, it's better than the other, far more widespread attitude: that paid and unpaid work are completely different. So different, in fact, that unpaid work actually isn’t work at all.

Mothers’ caregiving work doesn’t count for the purpose of acquiring health insurance or 401(k) contributions or Social Security credit. Mothers’ work doesn’t count even if their labor—washing diapers, meeting with teachers, driving to dental appointments, coaching with homework, preparing meals—frees the other parent to devote more time to work that does earn a paycheck and therefore does count. (To avoid being labeled sexist, let me note that the genders are occasionally reversed.)

Sure, by now anybody with a speck of cultural sensitivity is careful to use the PC terminology, to delicately distinguish between work “outside the home” and “in the home.” But that's one of the rare times when mothers’ caregiving work is treated like, well, work.

Mothers who “opt out” to care for their children are considered to have stopped working. If they later try to find a paid job, they worry about how to explain “the gap in their resume” as if having to rationalize a time when they weren’t working. I have talked to women who've been told they would be better off padding that gap with a minimum-wage, part-time, unskilled job than admitting to potential employers that they were at-home mothers.

This attitude helps explain why, even when they're getting paid and working in comparable jobs, mothers make less money than non-mothers (including fathers and childless people of either sex). It helps explain why more women than men are poor. It helps explain why so little status is attached to mothering, why at-home mothers often mention experiencing the “cocktail party demotion” in which they see people’s eyes, when they mention their occupation, dart around the room in search of better conversation, as if a (working) accountant or engineer is automatically better at exchanging sparkling repartee over the martinis.

It helps explain why, when I divorced and thereby lost my health insurance, I wasn’t eligible for the federal government program that, because of the bad economy, subsidized about two thirds of COBRA premiums for laid-off workers. Even though it was just as tough for me to find a job or afford COBRA (about $500 a month, in my case).

I may not have been doing the work of twenty people. But in the federal government's eyes, I wasn't even doing the work of one.

So am I suggesting that someone should start paying mothers a salary for taking care of their own children? Well, that's hard to envision, certainly in the current political climate. But folks, let's start considering it real work that deserves the respect and some of the economic protections and social benefits we give to other kinds of work. Either that, or let's insist that mothers and fathers share the work of parenting more equitablythat both, let's say, do the work of ten people.

Until then, damned if I'm going to “like” a post comparing me to a masochist and a saint. I have no interest in earning either label.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments:

True or not, celebrating this sort of slogan reinforces the idea that it's OK. Mothers should not be expected to do the work of 20 people for free. The work of raising children should be shared among fathers and the rest of the village, and mothers should not have to sacrifice their financial security to see that it gets done.

Four people clicked “like” on my comment.

Then the posted comments returned to “True!” and “Awesome!” and “Yup, spot on."


  1. Well, you make a very good point. In other words, "yup, spot on." :)

    The "cocktail party demotion" thing just puzzles me. It's part of a more general malaise I truly don't get: why people focus so much on what people *do* for a living. It doesn't represent a person as much as people think.

    Now the SAHM thing. Maybe it's the fact that my mom was pretty much that, maybe it's the fact that I come from a culture where "stay at home moms" are seen as basically people who hustle around the home rather than away from it, but I have more than a bit of contempt for people who think there's nothing to see there.

    I wouldn't mind at all seeing mothers getting paid for their work. But like you said, it could be very tricky to implement.

    Now, as a guy, this is what struck me the most: "Either that, or let's insist that mothers and fathers share the work of parenting more equitably—that both, let's say, do the work of ten people."

    I don't have a problem with that. In fact, I think it goes without saying.

    The problem is women and men have a *very* different definition of what parenting work is, and guys are clueless by nature (I'm being somewhat humorous here) so hints don't work, we need the whole instruction manual. But, honestly, the target keeps moving.

    That said, I live in Another Country, and things are a bit different here. While I'm not in each and everyone's home to survey whether equal labour (outside of paid occupation) is rigourously enforced, it looks at least fair from my vantage point. I only know *one* guy who I can say is not pulling his share (and I don't like him). Three quarters of my workmates have designed their workday around their family life: pick up the kids, cook supper for the damily, etc. And I only have a single female collegue.

  2. I very much agree with you --I can't like that cutesy saying either. Of course, here in the States, the dominant culture doesn't value any job that involves raising children. And the state of our civilization shows it.

  3. So funny, Katy, I wrote a blog post on Pooplosophy on this very subject a few months ago. We pay LOTS of people for jobs that we deem as beneficial to society. Why *not* mothers?

  4. I teach Women's Studies and one of my assignments is for students to log onto a virtual classroom and post a link relevant to each weeks topic. Last week was Work/Family and a student posted a link to one of your articles which lead me to your site. Would it be OK if I recommend your site to my students and possibly assign some of your articles as readings for class? Does this violate any copy-write laws? I would love to have you as a guest speaker in class. Too bad you live far away. Anyway, just wanted to say love your work.

  5. Oh my gosh, Lori, of course you can recommend my site and/or assign all the articles you like, copyright laws be damned (though that actually wouldn't break any; I own the rights to my freelance work). I am flattered, encouraged and honored. Thank you!

    And I'd love to hear more about your students' thoughts on Work/Family and related topics. Please keep in touch!


  6. Interesting post, Antonia. You make some good points, though I don't agree with all of them, including the idea that mothers should get paid by taxpayers. I would explain why here, but this issue comes up so often I feel I should just write a post about it. Stay tuned!

  7. Jmanig76, I'd love to meet your mom sometime. And I think that in some ways, older generations of mothers who didn't work were more respected than mothers from the current generation, because nowadays it's tacitly assumed that women could be doing something more important. And by "doing something important" I mean "getting paid."

    I also agree that women often set higher standards for parenting work than men. There are some obvious cultural reasons for that, but like you I would like to see the standards synchronized. And not just by getting men to raise their bar, but also by getting women to lower theirs.

    1. "I also agree that women often set higher standards for parenting work than men. There are some obvious cultural reasons for that, but like you I would like to see the standards synchronized. And not just by getting men to raise their bar, but also by getting women to lower theirs."

      I like that. I think that kind of approach would make both feel more understood and more respected.