As we make our nominations for how to remember 2014, I’d like to put in a bid for the Year of Pointless Gender Controversy. It’s actually kind of exhausting just doing a run-down of all the fruitless battles. Pay gaps! Confidence gaps! Endless squabbles over campus rape and sexual rules of engagement. How did we manage to fit this much silliness into a single year?
Then of course there were the usual fights about women and work. Like everyone else, I enjoyed some good laughs over President Obama’s Mommy War ineptitude this last fall. Telling women that being with their children is “not a choice we want them to make” is fairly ridiculous even by Obama standards. What’s next, Mr. President? Breast is worst? When will you start your campaign against apple pie?
Looking forward to 2015, however, I do have a suggestion for how to make things better for at-home moms. Let’s stop comparing them to professionals. I’d like to stop hearing how motherhood is “a full-time job” or “the most important job in the world.” It isn’t. It can’t be. Because the truth is, motherhood isn’t a “job” at all.
Work Goes Way Beyond Jobs
I understand why people say these things. They’re trying to emphasize that at-home moms aren’t lazy or unproductive just because they’re not in the work force. This is entirely true, of course. Mothers work tirelessly. It would cost a bundle to replace them, and that’s just counting the things that can be replaced. As for “unproductive,” mothers produce responsible, well-adjusted citizens, and you’d have to make an awful lot of widgets to compete with that.
Not all work, however, is done in the context of a job. In a broader social context, “having a job” implies formal engagement in the workforce. I might labor tirelessly in my own yard or garden, but I still wouldn’t say that landscaping is my job. If I announce that I’d like to get a job as a chef, people don’t reply, “You already have one, with your family at home.” Jobs involve wages or bottom lines. They bring people together with formal contracts and negotiated terms, and they run according to the logic of money, not love.
The “full-time job” expression is particularly worrisome. Calling motherhood a “full-time job” can feel like a slap in the face for working moms or even dads. Is fatherhood a part-time job? Are working mothers violating the terms of the implicit mommy contract? It should be possible to affirm at-home moms without being so combative.
More important than that, however, is the implicit assumption that maternal work should properly be evaluated alongside other types of employment. This isn’t something we should encourage, because it completely shortchanges the real value of keeping a household and nurturing the young.
The American Workplace Hierarchy
Americans care a lot about jobs. Our obsession with employment does make life harder for at-home moms, because for many people, jobs really aren’t just a source of income. They’re identity-forming. They convey competence and industry. Prestigious jobs secure social status. Altogether, jobs have a lot of social significance in America today, which is why at-home moms are tempted to refer to their domestic activities as “jobs.” Calling motherhood a job signifies that “we moms deserve the same respect as the gainfully employed.”
They do, but here’s the problem. We already have a lot of implicit standards or criteria by which we evaluate the status and desirability of jobs. One is income: we generally presume that the truly valuable will get paid the most. Competitiveness is another mark of status: if you’re one of a million hopefuls who broke into your profession, that makes you cool. Also highly valued are highly rarified skills. If you can do something that very few others can do, or just do it better than all the rest, you must be important and special.
These criteria (money, competition, rarified expertise) regularly serve as indicators of how prestigious a particular job must be. Sometimes a job can be reasonably prestigious without checking all three boxes; professors, for example, generally earn less than petroleum engineers, but may be more prestigious because their jobs are highly competitive and involve high levels of specialized knowledge.
Conservatives can talk themselves into some funny corners when it comes to job status and at-home moms. It’s the awkward point where our family values and our free-market values meet. We like the idea of intact families with devoted, nurturing mothers. But as free marketeers, we can’t really sandbag the above “status markers,” because they are the natural fruit of a competitive, market-based economy. In a thriving economy, income, competitiveness, and rarified expertise will always convey status. That’s how large markets play out on a human level.
What should we say, then, to women who choose not to enter the workforce for the sake of their families? We can call domesticity their “job,” and even try to bolster its prestige with cute terms like “Domestic CEO.” But the truth is, there’s no running from the basic fact that at-home motherhood ranks poorly on a conventional “job prestige” analysis. It pays nothing. Nobody else is competing for the privilege of mothering your kids. And nurturing can’t be all that rarified if millions of women across the country and world are doing it every day. Just to add salt to the wound: motherhood doesn’t give a woman broad name-recognition or influence, and it opens no opportunities for promotion, advancement, or a move to a more desirable career. If it’s a job, it’s a dead-end job. No wonder the president doesn’t think women should choose it.
Let’s Broaden Our Understanding of Valuable Work
But motherhood is not a job. It’s a vocation and a way of life. Some women who stay home to raise their children could succeed brilliantly in careers, but they value something else more than money or worldly success.
That’s why it’s completely inappropriate to evaluate motherhood by labor-force criteria. Instead of shaming women for sacrificing their earning power, we should admire their willingness to prioritize people over material goods. The lack of competition for motherly “positions” speaks to the unique, irreplaceable relationship that a mother has with her own kids. Nobody else will “apply” for this “job” because there’s literally nobody else out there with the right qualifications. Looking at maternity through the lens of “job analysis,” we identify as bugs things that should be seen as features.
Rarified skills are the hardest issue to parse, because domesticity doesn’t lend itself terribly well to specialization. Certainly, moms can have all sorts of impressive talents. But the hectic schedule of an at-home mom can make it difficult to develop particular skills in a disciplined way, and for some women, this can be one of the real trials of the domestic life.
There are no easy answers here, but I might just mention a few things. First, some women are able to develop an impressive range of skills and talents in the context of domestic life. A lot depends here on what your interests are. If you like cooking, sewing, and gardening, motherhood can afford many opportunities to exercise those talents at a high level. If your bent is more for civil engineering or marine biology, that might be harder.
But even if your career dreams don’t fit hand-in-glove with the work of raising a family, the entrepreneurial mom can often find opportunities to use her abilities. When I first became a mother, I was frustrated by the lack of outlets for my rather specialized training in analytic philosophy. I was used to devoting several hours a day in intellectually challenging academic work, and the daily grind of diapers and burp cloths left me simultaneously exhausted and bored. Over time though, I realized that there are many possible applications for analytic and written skills. Some are fairly compatible with full-time caretaking.
With enough patience and creativity, the possibilities for cultivating personal excellence within the context of motherhood are quite rich. Motherhood isn’t “unskilled” in the way that, say, burger-flipping is unskilled; it doesn’t preclude the use of rarified skills. It would be better to compare it to something less contractual, such as “being a human.” Is that unskilled? In a sense, yes, because it’s possible to be human without having any noteworthy skills or accomplishments. But people who do trouble to develop and discipline themselves will generally find that life rewards that investment many times over. Similarly, mothers may not need an impressive resume up-front, but over time, their work will draw on every sort of resource they can muster.
In any case, we certainly should not stand for the prejudice that at-home mothers are little more than unpaid janitors. Just because they aren’t paid for their expertise doesn’t mean they don’t have any.
Finding New Criteria for Judging Motherhood
If motherhood isn’t a job, what is it? Are there better ways to do justice to the contribution mothers make?
I think there are, and it’s even possible that getting perspective on this matter might help ease the Mommy War tensions to some extent. Instead of comparing motherhood to professions, why not compare it to other less-competitive but socially valuable work, such as military service or pastoral work? Soldiers and pastors are indispensible to the health and integrity of society, which is why we properly honor them with some level of deference and respect. On the competitive job analysis, these positions rank fairly poorly. They don’t pay well, and with some exceptions (e.g. popes or Navy SEALs), aren’t as competitive as high-status professions. Some military specialists or scholarly pastors may have high levels of expertise or erudition. But the rank and file are still respected, even without such rarified accomplishments.
We respect these people because we understand that their social contributions are enormous, and of a sort that a salary can’t fully acknowledge. These occupations are by nature generous and honorable. We presume that the people who hold them are decent and upstanding, unless evidence proves otherwise.
What if we gave mothers a similar sort of deference? Could we not honor them with a similar presumption that their work is respectable and socially valuable? Like soldiers and ministers, they are vital to maintaining the fabric of our society. Like soldiers and ministers, their efforts to do so involve considerable self-sacrifice. Of course, particular women may still crave the type of status that comes through professional-type accomplishment, but maternal efforts should convey a different sort of status, regardless of a woman’s professional status.
Suppose society did have that general respect for maternity as such, and that mothers felt valued for the contribution they make in bearing and nurturing the next generation. Might they not then be less defensive about their work and family choices? More willing to consider what arrangement might actually work for their families? I think it would be worth a try.
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