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."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What we talk about when we talk about parenthood

Rebecca Odes has written an excellent post on Babble's "Strollerderby" blog about discussing parental ambivalence with non-parents. And I say that not because she agrees with me.

Well OK, that is a big part of the reason. But also because Odes explains the phenomenon really well, and makes several additional good points.

Such as:
Yes, parenthood is hard sometimes. But really, so are a lot of things that bring rewards.  You don’t have to tell a parent about the rewarding part; a parent is living it. But the feelings of joy and fulfillment that come from raising a child are hard to describe or to express. Partially, perhaps, because people feel bad about expressing them,  because everyone knows that non-parents don’t want to hear you get all googly eyed over your kid. People complain when parents complain, but they complain about parents kvelling, too.
It seems like non-parents mostly want parents to just shut up already.
Excellent observation. The XX Factor post I mentioned a few posts ago that criticized mothers' complaints was also put off by their "bizarre baby proselytizing." My impression is that people who don't want to hear you gripe about parenting really really don't want to hear you go on about what a joyful experience it is.

And you know what? I get this. Before I became a parent, I didn't particularly want to go into a lot of conversational detail about either one, either. Any more than I want to hear, say, a runner friend go on and on about his or her pacing and hydration and electrolytes and whatever. At least not more than maybe once.

Which is why, when I talk to my non-parent friends, I tend to discuss other subjects. Which is fine! Because believe it or not, I'm interested in many other subjects, including but not limited to the weather, work, food, books, movies, travel, current events, the economy, politics, fashion, politics, religion, writing, shopping, funny things we saw on the internet.

(And I would rather discuss just about any other subject, really, than what my children are up to lately with a non-parent friend who asks in a sort of polite, perfunctory, obligatory way, as if secretly thinking, "I know her life revolves entirely around them and she probably has no interest in talking about anything else, so here goes ..." Which, by the way, in my observation seems to happen less to fathers than mothers.)

When parents are talking to each other, though, their kids are sort of an natural area of conversational commonality. And if there's a non-parent or two in the room at the time, I don't think parents are required to show only the good parts in order to soothe or cajole or trick them into making the same choice. Or as Odes puts it:
Acknowledging the difficulties should me a way for parents to find support, both personally and culturally.  But even if it’s not, I don’t think parents should have to be their own marketing department.  As far as I’m concerned, my evolutionary imperative does not extend to the species at large.

Right? Most people don't, or at least shouldn't, care whether someone else chooses to have kids or not. (Except maybe because we want lots of workers paying taxes at the point when we're collecting Social Security.) Anybody else, as far as I'm concerned, is free to do whatever they want.
And somehow it usually all works out. My non-parent friends, like my parent friends, seem quite happy with the paths they've taken.