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 Some of the statistics are out-of-date, which most likely only makes them more alarming.
As 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 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.