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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 MomsRising.com.

Mensch of the Year

Stacy and Lowell

Stacy and Lowell

A bit of clean laundry for the New Year. No, more than that: a bit of nachas, the Yiddish term for happiness, particularly that generated by one’s child.

My daughter was named a Mensch of the Year by LA’s Jewish Journal, a distinction she richly deserves for having turned a difficult and heartbreaking life experience into something useful, starting her own organization to raise money for research into Crohns disease.

Not, I hasten to note, that I deserve any credit: I’ve always said that Stacy was born almost fully formed as exactly who she is—it’s the only way to explain how utterly different from me she was and is. Once, when she was five and I was carting her all over New York State in search of some elusive nirvana, she sat on the back of our U-Haul truck once again with our packed possessions and exclaimed, “I can’t wait till I grow up so I don’t have to live with nobody!”

More recently, when I tried to do something new and different with an advocacy group I worked with and they weren’t interested, I simply left and ceased doing anything. In a similar situation, Stacy started her own group.

Lowell

Lowell

When my grandson Lowell was diagnosed early on with IBD, specifically Crohns, I thought, as most people probably do, that it just meant stomach aches and dietary restrictions. It turns out to be much more problematic, in some cases, including his, causing chronic pain and fatigue, nutritional deficiencies, delayed growth, and constant crises necessitating invasive medical tests, visits to the ER and hospitalizations, even surgery.

Besides dealing with all that and more, Stacy started running marathons. So did Jonah, Lowell’s older brother.

Marathon runners Stacy and Jonah

Marathon runners Stacy and Jonah

I’m thrilled that my daughter has been recognized for her hard work and advocacy of people with IBD, and not just because she’s on the cover of a magazine, though I admit I got a huge kick out of that. The deeper meaning is that a lot of other people will learn about what she’s done, she’ll get energy and kudos, and it will raise awareness of Crohns disease.

As for me, I’m starting 2015 brimming with nachas.

Happy New Year all.

 

Labor Day: The Hard Work of Mothering

A slightly different version of the following was originally posted on Dirty Laundry on Mothers Day 2008. Some of the statistics are out-of-date, which most likely only makes them more alarming.

cartoon mothers w: kidsAs the media does every so often, CNN recently reported the latest calculation of what mothers would earn if they were actually paid, in cold hard cash, for their labor. That number would fall somewhere between $117K and $149K per year, a figure arrived at by estimating the average hourly wage for the various tasks involved in mothering: cooking, nursing, chauffeuring, etcetera. Of course, this “news” was delivered by two giggling anchors: they didn’t take it seriously, or expect their audience to either.

Mother’s work is, so received wisdom goes, performed purely for love, and the notion of financial remuneration is simply hilarious.

Never mind that we pay nannies, nurses, housekeepers, day care providers, even the teenager next door for babysitting. And never mind all those studies proving, pretty definitively by now, that women lose income over the course of a lifetime when they spend years mothering. Or that they’re sometimes left to fend for themselves during hubby’s midlife crisis, if not sooner. We seem, as a society, to be terrified of this issue. We seem to think that if mothers were paid for their work, the family as an institution would crumble.

Back in the 1970s the International Wages for Housework Campaign, a network of women in 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 active in Australia and England than in the U.S., the movement never went anywhere, and today it’s all but dead: an Internet search dug up articles that were either decades old, or in fringe publications promoting social anarchy.

In 1990 the International Labor Organization estimated that women do two-thirds of the world’s work for 5% of its income. In 1995 the UN Development Programme’s Human Moneyhouse$$Development Report announced that women’s unpaid and underpaid labor was worth $11 trillion worldwide, $1.4 trillion in the United States alone. No doubt these figures are much higher today. (I looked up more recent U.N. reports, but, I confess, found them indecipherable.)

Even more mind-blowing is the system by which governments compute productivity. In If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics, Marilyn Waring explains the complexities of our economic system, which “counts oil spills and wars as contributors to economic growth, while child-rearing and housekeeping are deemed valueless.”

Motherhood isn’t devalued in monetary terms only. In the early 1980s I enrolled in Empire State College, part of the State University of New York, to complete the requirements for my Bachelor’s degree. ESC was a school of independent study, and life experience earned college credits.  A written narrative had to detail the work and reading done in each field, and be approved by a committee. School policy excluded mothering as a field of study, but my mentor thought that raising a child with a disability, and what I’d learned of the medical system and social work organizations as a result, might be credit-worthy. I wrote up my papers for credit in that and a number of other fields. For writing I got 32 whopping credits. For public relations I got 9; for fundraising, 12; and for political activism, 15. For raising a child with a disability, after much committee debate as to whether to even include it, I got three credits, the lowest amount of all my life experience. If nothing else, I received a stunning education from SUNY.

I don’t know why the majority of the world’s population thinks mothering as work is laughable, and wages for housework a ridiculous concept. I only know that whenever some idiotic anchorperson laughingly tells me what I would have earned as a mother had my work been deemed monetarily valuable, I go into a rage.

 

Great Guilt Trip With Babs

GuiltTrip

It’s not that there’s anything astounding or remarkable about Guilt Trip, the new comedy with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, mother and son on a road trip through hell. What’s so good about this movie is how utterly REAL Barbra is in the role of Joyce Brewster, a 60-something widowed mother. Most women of our generation will recognize themselves and their friends in the character–but when I say Streisand is real in Guilt Trip, I’m referring to more than characterization. Her acting is real in Guilt Trip; it’s possible she’s never done so well in any previous film. Anne Fletcher, who directed Guilt Trip, seems to have known exactly what to do with her.

I’m assuming direction makes the difference: in so many of Barbra’s movies–from Funny Girl to Prince of Tides right on up through Meet the Fockers–she has a tendency to overact, but in Guilt Trip I didn’t see a single instance of her usual emoting. Every smile, tear, conversation, and subtle reactions are conveyed in a way that is seamlessly real, and if I’m overusing that word, it’s because nothing else can better describe Streisand’s performance and persona here. Maybe it’s just, as Mick LaSalle says in The SF Chronicle, “Maturity has released something in Streisand, who, having gone beyond trying to sell herself as a babe (as in “The Mirror Has Two Faces”), has a new warmth.”

Seth Rogen is Streisand’s son, Andy Brewster, an inventor hawking his organic cleaning fluid on their road trip. Andy’s humorless presentations doom his product before it can get off the ground. He rejects Mom’s advice to zip up his performance, and who can blame him when it’s thrown at him amid  600 other pieces of advice to drink more water, visit his high school sweetheart, see a shrink, yada yada yada. Sounds like a stereotypical Jewish mother, but it doesn’t come off clichéd. I saw the picture with my son, and we both related to the mother-son dynamics. Besides, Mom is vindicated in the end, when Andy finally takes her advice and it pays off. In between rejection and triumph, of course, they have to travel a long long road. It’s great fun for the audience if not the riders.

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(Above: Barbra as Joyce Brewster eats a humongous steak dinner in an hour, thereby getting it free.)

As an old Barbra Streisand fanatic who’s been watching her since 1963, hasseen every one of her movies, most of them multiple times, owns most of her recorded work and had a personal Streisand adventure of sorts (see my post on meeting her in a New York HoJo), I have the right and the credentials to criticize or praise her (though so does everyone else, come to think of it!). I say this because when I checked out  Rotten Tomatoes to see what film critics and ordinary viewers are saying about the movie, I was disappointed–even kind of hurt, since so many of them dismiss GT as crappy drivel for little old ladies. You know, us old fuddy duds who don’t know a thing about le cinema but adore false sentiment. Oh, boo hoo and a big boo to you too! I laughed my way through most of Guilt Trip, was emotionally moved, and saw a two-hour sliver of truth and beauty. I don’t expect every movie to transform my life. A lot of them don’t even transform my two hours of watching! This one had side-splitting laughs and the whole thing was fun. Which is enough for any piece of entertainment to deliver.

 

Playing By The Rules: Check Your Premises

Politicians are always squawking madly that America works best when her citizens “Play by the Rules” (PBTR). The rules to which they refer are, at their most basic level, work hard, save your money, and don’t get into debt (that last one might be out of date). Depending on how disciplined you are or can be, more complex levels of the rules include heterosexual marriage, children, home ownership, and a zillion other lifestyle tweaks that add up to being a good clean-cut American citizen. Those who PBTR are rewarded, primarily, with enough money to make their lives comfortable or even luxurious. They can afford to buy  fun stuff—boats and vans and summer homes—travel to the far reaches of the globe, and go on adventurous vacations like jungle safaris, parachuting, and other wild thrills. Or they can simply accumulate lots of jewelry or cars or let the cash itself pile up.

Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently made a rather shocking statement: he said, expressing hostility towards them, that some people don’t want to PBTR. They don’t. Want. To play. By the rules.

I’ve been mulling this over since he said it, and you know what? He’s absolutely right! A lot of us do not want to PBTR. I am one of them. I’ve lived my entire life far outside the rules—consciously and intentionally.

I am a writer. Pre-Internet it was nearly impossible to make money writing, and even today, most of us cannot, do not, and will not work 9 to 5 jobs out of which we spin hot careers. We already have hot careers: as writers. Unlike most careers, however—except for the plum jobs like corporate newsletter editor and a very few others—writing doesn’t support its practitioners immediately, if ever. Writers have to find ways to support our careers until they support us. Sometimes they never do, and we surrender to some other occupation. Or we just surrender, period, and litter the landscape with our exhausted bodies. Or we keep on keepin’ on, usually unhappily, our lives a study in subversion of the rules and its deprivations. This is, of course, true not only of writers but of all artists: photographers, painters, sculptors, and other creative geniuses. We comprise a sizeable chunk of the American populace that doesn’t PBTR. This has always been the case, and it always will be.

Then there are those whose art is creative living: there were more of these back in the late 60’s, called “hippies.” I knew people who took the hippie lifestyle a lot further than I did: living on the land, sometimes communally, in teepees, cabins, and tents. My kids and I (usually) lived in a traditional house, though not strictly in PBTR circumstances.  For awhile we lived on a hilltop buried in snow half the year, in one of five cozy little bungalows huddled in a protective semi-circle, in each of which lived a single mother and one or two kids. I was the only adult with a real job—secretarial of course—to supplement my paltry child support check. I remember one of the women, a conservative’s worst nightmare, who claimed it was more principled to let the government support mothers via welfare so they’d stay home with their kids than for her to leave them every day for a job. As a feminist striving for independence, I found this rather shocking—but as time went by, I came to see her point of view as viable. I still do. In order to see it differently, I first had to check my premises—an idea promoted incessantly by Paul Ryan’s mentor, Ayn Rand.

“Check your premises” was, in my opinion, the most sensible thing Rand ever said—but Paul Ryan evidently didn’t pay attention to this piece of Randian philosophy. He hasn’t checked the premises that underlie the practice of playing by the rules. When he says some people don’t want to, he’s assuming evil premises, one of which is that if you don’t PBTR, you’re lazy. You’re not working hard. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my experience: there were times when I held three “part time” jobs that added up, both in hours and muscle power, to more than one. Sometimes I cleaned houses, and worked like a dog. And yes, sometimes I got lucky–like when I collected unemployment–and I got to take it easy.

And what’s so terrible about enjoying life? What’s wrong with spending your days playing music with your kids, or taking them ice skating? What’s so terrible about having a little bit of fun? Come on, tell us, Mr. Ryan: what’s wrong with having fun? Why, when you accuse us of not PBTR, do you attach evil premises to the practice? When I—or another artist or hippie–says someone doesn’t want to PBTR, it’s just a statement of fact. The underlying premise is neutral, with no value judgment attached. Really.

If not playing by the rules is simply a statement of fact without moral value, where does it leave us? At the end of the American Way of Life? Is that what Paul Ryan and those who believe so fervently in PBTR are afraid of? I don’t have an answer. I just think it would be a damn good idea if everyone, especially the people in power, would take a minute or two to check their premises.

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