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The High Cost of Mothering

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I’ve just read an article in The New Yorker about a rich and famous mommy blogger; it inspired me to post this expanded version of one I wrote a few years ago. What with Mothers Day coming up, it seems appropriate.

cartoon mothers w: kids

CNN recently reported, as the media is prone to do every so often, the latest calculation of what mothers would earn if they were actually paid, in cold hard cash, for their labor. Today the number would be somewhere between $117K and $149K per year, a figure arrived at by estimating the average hourly wage for each of the various tasks involved in daily child care: cooking, nursing, chauffeuring, etcetera. This “news” was delivered by two giggling anchors: they didn’t take it seriously, nor expect their audience to either. Mother’s work is, after all, performed purely for love, and the notion of financial renumeration is simply hilarious.

Never mind that we pay everyone else to do it: nannies, nurses, housekeepers, day care providers, even the teenager next door. And never mind all those studies that have proven, definitively by now, that women who spend their best years mothering lose serious income over the course of their lifetimes. Or that they’re sometimes left to fend for themselves when hubby has his midlife crisis, if not sooner.

During the 1970s the International Wages for Housework Campaign, a network of women in both Third World and industrialized countries, formulated a list of ambitious demands “for the unwaged work that women do to be recognized as work in official government statistics, and for this work to be paid.” More popular in Australia and England than it was in the U.S., Wages for Housework never made much progress, and today it’s all but dead: an Internet search dug up articles that were either a dozen years old, or in fringe publications that promote social anarchy.

In 1990 the International Labor Organization estimated that women do two-thirds of the world’s work and receive five percent of the world’s income. The United Nations Human Development Report of 1995 announced that women’s unpaid and underpaid labor was worth $1.4 trillion in the United States alone, and a total of $11 trillion worldwide. No doubt these figures are even higher today. (More recent U.N. reports were indecipherable, at least to me.)

Even more astounding, in an Alice-in-Wonderland way, is the system by which governments compute national productivity. In If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics, Marilyn Waring explains the complexities of our economic accounting system, which “counts oil spills and wars as contributors to economic growth, while child-rearing and housekeeping are deemed valueless.” I strongly recommend this book, which makes a warped and complicated system somewhat understandable, and without talking down to the reader.41rpfkwgKVL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

But it’s not in monetary terms alone that motherhood is devalued, as I learned years ago when I enrolled in the independent study program of the State University of New York to finally complete the requirements for a Bachelor’s degree, having interruped that process when I had kids. Most independent study programs, including New York’s, give credit for life experience, as long as it’s framed as a course of study, approved by a committee, and submitted as a written narrative. To my dismay – but not surprise – this policy does not extend to motherhood, i.e., one cannot gain credit for the life experience of child-rearing. My mentor, a strong feminist, suggested an end run around the rule: that I apply for credit in the area of disability studies, having raised a child with a chronic medical condition.

Thus, I wrote “Raising a Child With a Disability,” outlining what I’d learned from my experience about the medical and social work systems in our culture. I submitted this along with all my other papers covering a number of fields: public relations, fundraising, political activism, journalism, and creative writing. All these topics sailed through the approval process without a hitch – except, of course, for Raising a Child With a Disability, which caused rancorous debate among committee members. In the end, I received a total of 32 credits for life expeirnece, a fairly high number, or so I was told. Nine of these were for Office Management, based primarily on having run a small art museum and sculpture garden for several years. I was thrilled to earn 16 credits for creative writing. And for raising a child with a disability? Three. I was awarded three puny credits, the lowest number of all my life experience, for what I’d learned in 18 years raising a child with a life-threatening condition. I definitely received a stunning education from SUNY.

I don’t know why people think this way, or why Wages for Housework is seen as laughable. I don’t know why feminists don’t continue to push for it. We seem, as a society, to be terrified of the idea. We seem to think that if mothers were paid for their work, the family as an institution would crumble.

What do I expect, when in 2010 a goodly number of people still object to mothers working outside the home. A few years ago conservative talk show host Michael Medved invited Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, a founder of Moms Rising, onto his show to ask her why an employer shouldn’t have “the choice not to hire a single mother.” Somehow he managed to make this idea sound perfectly reasonable. Finkbeiner responded by challenging the assumption that a single mother is more likely to take time off than other employees.

To my mind, this argument is self-defeating. It’s a lie: the truth is, a single mother is likely to need more time off, and if we’d admit this we could point out why she should get it. Employers – and all citizens – have a vested interest in the kind of adults our children become, and therefore in the quality of the parenting they receive. The rationale behind It Takes a Village isn’t that we’ll all become better people and go to heaven; it’s that we have to live on this planet with other people’s kids. Twenty years from now we don’t want to be mugged by some single mom’s grownup son who was neglected in childhood. It’s almost that simple. A study of the effects of the After School Education and Safety Program Act of 2002 found that every dollar spent on an at-risk youth in an after-school program brings a return of $8.92 to $12.90, a result, primarily, of the amount saved by channeling at-risk youth away from a life of crime.

Employers don’t always take this kind of long view – but even in the short term, being flexible with an employee who’s responsible for children can mean the difference between her keeping the job or not, and if not, a case can be made for discrimination. Will accommodating her needs really ruin the business? The answer in most cases is probably not — but living with the work-family conflict is partly responsible for compromising the quality of the relationships between countless parents and children.

And yet, other countries have enacted policies and programs—paid family leave, flexible work options, subsidized childcare—that help enhance family relationships. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have some form of paid leave for new mothers or both parents, including Cuba.  A quarter of “poverty spells” begin with the birth of a baby. No wonder women sometimes feel, on a subliminal level, as if we’re being punished for having a baby.

Our kids, of course, don’t realize that the conditions under which they live are externally imposed. No child could understand these complex systems; we even shield them from knowing, so as not to burden them. I can’t remember how many times I couldn’t buy something quite reasonable my kids wanted — or even needed. Worse, we lived precariously, driving around in old unreliable cars. I’ll never forget the day the car broke down in the snow on the way to the doctor after one of my son’s seizures. Because the kids don’t know these problems come from our social system, they’re likely to view their mothers as incompetent losers or negligent villains. This can affect the relationships between mothers and children far into the future.

Other effects of raising children stretch beyond the period of active mothering as well. When women take time out of the work force they face huge pay cuts that take a life-long toll: for an average 2.2 years out of the labor force a woman takes an 18 percent cut in lifetime earnings. For those who stay out of the labor force three or more years, the news is even bleaker: a 37 percent loss of earning power.  Mothers living in countries with family-friendly policies don’t take these huge wage hits, and men who become fathers don’t take them at all. But in the U.S. many more elderly women live in poverty than elderly men. Eureka! It isn’t only the kids, by the way, who think a poor woman is an incompetent one; that’s something I’ve got to learn to get over.

All statistics and research data regarding motherhood and work are from


3 responses »

    May 03, 2009

    I saw a story on the news about calculating how much a Mother’s work would cost on the open market. It was all of the domestic stuff: cooking, laundry, cleaning and transportation. The total was around $150,000, but I don’t know if that was for a year, a week, or a lifetime, because I really wasn’t paying attention. Not because I don’t think it’s important to show how valuable a mother’s work is, but, really, I thought their calculations were way off. I could think of a multitude of services my mother provided for me that they neglected to tally up. Instead of listing them all, I’ll see if I can’t go through the alphabet once.

    Ambulance driver: yes, on more than one occasion.

    Bodyguard: I pity the individual who’d threaten her baby boy.

    Caregiver: what other nurse brings comic books along with the Sprite and Saltines?

    Dogwalker. Well, it was supposed to be my dog.

    EMT before and after the ambulancing.

    Freelance consultant, would even offer unrequested advice.

    Gardener: the work required was astounding and after tasting homegrown tomatoes I could pretend that one day I could do it .

    Handywoman, fixed nearly as many things as I broke!

    Ice cream selector: not just 31 Flavors; we’re talking Godiva, Ben & Jerry’s, and this grand dark chocolate with a hint of–was it Orange?**

    Judge. Somebody had to do it.

    Karmic guide; should’ve taken more advantage of this.

    Lender, at ridiculously low rates.

    Minister: someone to help when one of the pets went to a better place.

    Negotiator: I think I held myself hostage a couple of times and she talked me down.

    Organ donor.

    Personal assistant, understatement of the millennium.

    Queen: I don’t know if that gets a stipend, but she treated me like a prince.

    Ringleader: O, I brought the circus more than a few times.

    Singer! How much for lullabies from someone who teaches Voice Class!!

    Translator: Spanish, French, and a few phrases of “teenager-ese.”

    Urgent care provider: someone had to coordinate the Ambulance driver, the Caregiver, and the EMT.

    X-ray technician: well, she could usually see right through me.

    Yardwork supervisor: I won’t lie: it probably wouldn’t have gotten done.

    Zookeeper, need I say more?

    I don’t know about any body else’s experience, but you can have a hundred credit cards; it’s my Mother that’s priceless!

    (**Grand Marnier!! I remembered.)

    (From my son, Jesse)
    You reminded me.

    This is fantastic! Thank you, Juanita and Jesse.–MS

  2. Lorraine Freeman

    You nailed this one, Marcy. The pro-family agenda is an anti-mother agenda. If a single mother (actually any mother) is struggling she gets censure and blame rather than support, while single fathers tend to be valorized and everyone jumps to lend him a hand. A mother is expected to be on 24×7 with a cheerful smiling mien at all times. A father is allowed to have a beer, watch TV and ignore the kids and it’s seen as a cute foible cuz after all, he’s just a guy.

    C ‘ est la vie.

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