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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


Susan Miller RIP

Susan in a Wacky Wig

Susan in a Wacky Wig

Susan (“Shoshana”) Miller
b. January 1941 — d. Jan. 19, 2013

“Susan evolves and helps other people evolve.”

Someone once asked me what my friend Susan “did” in the world. I thought a moment and then told him that she evolved and helped others do the same. It’s true, that’s what Susan did. She evolved.

The first time I met Susan we bonded over the songs of Bob Dylan. She was thrilled to meet a feminist who, like her, did not condemn his “sexist” lyrics the way many of our sisters did. She was even more thrilled that I knew most of his lyrics. Together we launched into a joyful songfest that lasted almost 40 years.

Susan was always excited about one thing or another. She’d share her cultural discoveries, saying with great fervor, “There’s a lot to check out!

I met her in 1975, while she was in New York waiting for a space to open up in a Colorado asthma clinic. Her friend Stephanie, who she’d known since childhood, introduced us. I was in a theater group with Stephanie, and was also madly in love with her. So was Susan, but having been at it longer, she played the role of mentor to my first and only serious lesbian relationship. Being bisexual in the lesbian-feminist community was another place where she and I bonded.

Our most significant bond, though, came from the kind of people we were by virtue of our experiences with disability. Susan was one of perhaps three people who understood from the inside out my life as the mother of a person born with a chronic medical condition. Having been born with asthma and eczema, as a child she was tied to the bed to keep her from scratching herself. Painful “medicine” was applied to her inflamed arms and legs—like so many treatments of that era, it was pure torture. That Susan became such an enthusiastic, fun-seeking lover of life is testament to the human spirit.

Some 15 years after our New York meeting I moved to San Francisco. Susan was living here, and we reunited at a Mother Tongue theatrical event. She was still singing Dylan, still bisexual, still checking things out. She became my cheerleader, faithfully reading almost everything I wrote, leaving a trail of comments sprinkled across my blog. I’m glad I have those comments–I’ll always be able to open one and feel her enthusiasm leaping off the screen.

She was a wonderful woman and a great friend. RIP Shoshana. I’m certain you’re still evolving.

Death of the Cosmo Girl

RIP Helen Gurley Brown, who died Monday in New York City at the age of 90.

HGB was and remains legendary, primarily  for her promotion of sex and independence for single girls in Cosmopolitan magazine when she took over as editor in 1965. I had to note her passing here on Dirty Laundry because of her significance to my generation of women. To  read her full obituaries go to The New York Times and/or Book Peeps.

“She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.”–from the NYTimes obituary

Over Our Dead Bodies

Has there ever been a more blatant display of misogyny than Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum falling all over themselves to prove who’s the most anti-abortion? The war for the Republican Presidential nomination is being waged over the bodies of women.

They’re acting like a bunch of fat hairy gorillas, pounding their chests a la King Kong on top of the Empire State
Building, the difference being that Kong was a sympathetic character. And these guys aren’t fighting for their lives, but for their sperm. Santorum doesn’t even want a condom playing catcher with his stuff — he thinks every ejaculation deserves a name. If ever I itched to overthrow the patriarchy, it’s now.

I’m disappointed in Obama, but he’ll get my vote. Hell, I might even make a few phone calls on his behalf. These Republicreatures scare the shit outta me. Romney is probably the least scary just because he’s malleable – but he needs to be surrounded by sane thinkers, and there aren’t that many sane thinkers left in the country.

I can see how easy it must be to adopt an absolute position on something, anything really, and run with it. It’s so much easier than thinking. And if you happen to trample over a few million women in the process, so be it. They’re only women, after all. So long as the sperm’s okay nothing else matters.

Well, that’s not entirely true: apparently it also matters what kind of a capitalist boss you are. This week they fought over who’s the meanest, with Romney leading the pack for firing people from Bain Capital, his corporation. Soon they’ll run through that thrash, though, and turn their attention back to abortion – and, if Santorum has his way, contraception as well. They’re too obsessed with controlling women to leave the subject for very long. Which raises the question: will Obama be forced to debate abortion? Contraception!? And if so, will he come through for us? Or will he cave, as he has on so many other issues, to prove he’s as manly as any self-respecting Republican fetus lover? Stay tuned.

The Kids Are All Right: Movie Review

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Kids All RightWarning: Spoilers and X-Rated Material Ahead

Of course the kids are all right. I always knew they would be. Some people were wringing their hands, fretting about how children raised by gay couples might turn out, but I never thought they’d have it any worse than kids from other family configurations – then again, I don’t worship at the altar of the nuclear family. Besides, unlike straight couples who just assume they’ll have children, those living outside the norm are forced to think long and hard before jumping into parenthood; in fact, they don’t “jump” at all – they sometimes go through hell and high water just to become parents. And once they do have kids, they tend to be fairly conscientious raising them. I’m not idealizing gay parents or saying they’re better at it; it’s just that living outside the mainstream in any way whatsoever forces people to deal with a host of issues that heterosexuals never have to think about.


Surprisingly, however, the film’s title is hardly the point. It turns out to be not so much about kids raised by lesbians, but rather about love and family and betrayal, and all the complexities in long-term relationships. It’s about sexuality and sexual identity and the longing for connection. That the kids are all right is almost incidental.

Eighteen-year-old Joni, named for Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, has the riveting looks of Claire Danes; she also happens to resemble someone I know, and I could hardly take my eyes off her. Which is quite a feat when you consider that Annette Benning and Julianne Moore, both knockouts, play the mothers. Their gorgeous looks are underplayed: if they were wearing any makeup in this movie, it was to highlight sags and wrinkles. When Moore’s character dons her gardening gear, she comes off looking like a middle-aged Annie Hall wannabe.Kids All Right

The plot is set in motion when 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) convinces his sister to find their donor, the man whose sperm contributed to their existence, since he’s too young, by law, to get the information himself. Joni, afraid of hurting their mothers, is reluctant, but when she meets Papa Sperm (Mark Ruffalo), she just about falls in love with him. So does everyone else in the family, with the exception of Mama Benning, whose fear of rocking the boat turns out to be well-founded: Mama Moore, while creating a lush garden Papa Sperm hires her to do, jumps into bed with him. The affair almost tears the family apart. That they survive is testament to the strength of their bonds and loyalty to one another – or so I perceive director Lisa Cholodenko’s point to be.

Mark RuffaloThe sex scenes between Moore and Ruffalo are wildly, passionately, animalistic. She literally tears his pants off, and greets what’s inside them like a long lost friend: “Hel-lo!” she says, apparently awestruck. Two or three substantial scenes of their lovemaking follow, in sharp contrast to the women’s sex: there’s been just one anemic scene of them in bed. In it we see Moore moving about under the covers, and Benning’s facial expressions – which would work if she were actually being expressive, but if anything, she seems bored. From underneath the quilt comes the buzz of a vibrator. More movement. End sex scene. The lesbians sitting behind me were laughing their asses off in recognition, and I confess I too got a chuckle out of the scene. The hetero sex scenes had not yet occurred, so it’s only in retrospect that I feel the lesbian couple got the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

More important, because Moore has such a raging good time in penis-land, what comes later on, in the confrontation between her and Benning, seems off kilter.  It’s evasive, even false. A bisexual friend of mine was miffed because Benning asks, “Are you straight?” rather than “Are you bisexual?” The latter question, I think, would’ve been out of character, especially during a confrontation – but there is something missing here. Benning’s question doesn’t even seem to register with Moore, and when Benning asks if it was about sex, Moore makes a dismissive face. Finally, she claims that she slept withKids All RightPapa Sperm because she was feeling “unappreciated.”

Is that what she was getting, her legs high in the air while Papa Sperm pounded into her like a steamroller? Appreciation? Gimme a break! The intensity of the hetero sex scenes, and the absence of romanticism, utterly contradicts the lie.

So I have to ask: Why? Why did the director stereotype lesbian sex as warm and cuddly, while depicting straight sex as raw animal pleasure? Was it fear of letting a mainstream audience see what women really do in bed? Or was she just rewinding old tired stereotypes of female sexuality? I guess it was foolish of me to expect Hollywood to move beyond lesbian stereotypes — a good movie about lesbian mothers is enough of a leap.

But here’s the thing: my criticism isn’t coming from some pro-lesbian-passion crusade. This is not a political ax I’m grinding. What I’m talking about is honesty and believability in art. The director’s choices regarding sexual portrayal wreck the film. Oh, sure, it’s a fun movie, it’s enjoyable to watch  – but the premise of the film doesn’t work, not if the implication at the end is, as it appears to be, that the family’s bonds are far stronger than a roll in the hay, and their relationships will heal and go on. From what I saw between that man and woman in bed compared to what I saw between the women’s sheets, I don’t believe this ending one bit. I don’t believe that Mama Moore will be faithful from now on. She’s going to stray again. And again.