A friend sent me an article written by a mother of three children who describes herself as the parent who stays home while her husband supports the five of them. She writes about taking her first “solo vacation” in ten years. This vacation consisted of four days attending an art workshop in which she was interested. In writing about this experience she expresses a number of ideas and feelings which would give many women who are mothers much to think about.
She writes about feeling this was a big commitment of time – and money – “none of which I earned myself – with no tangible return on the family’s investment. . . . I wouldn’t be learning a marketable skill, or networking.” During her time away, she took classes and challenged herself. She learned that she hadn’t lost the ability to be by herself (after ten years of constant company), and that she still felt “a bit insecure because my only job description is ‘mother’.”
Early in the article she writes that she would like to think that her presence at home has contributed to the family’s overall financial health, even if she was not earning anything herself. Her husband, who works hard but also travels for work, has been to some amazing places. But she works hard, too, and “thus far, nobody has organized a fully subsidized conference for stay-at-home parents in, say Rome.”
Although writing that she would “like to think” she has contributed to her family’s financial health by her presence at home, the author also expresses her qualms about using money for personal time off that she hasn’t “earned” herself. The problem is that she has never been paid in dollars for her work at home and so she has trouble equating the cost of her little vacation with the fact that she “works hard, too.”
She also describes and questions the expenditure of money as offering no tangible return on the family’s investment. Yet she clearly has tried to persuade herself that she has contributed to her family’s financial health by her full time job as mother/homemaker. Doesn’t mom’s physical and mental health contribute to her family’s financial health? What would it cost to replace the work she does, never mind that part which is irreplaceable?
Finally, she raises as a criticism of her time away that she wouldn’t be learning a marketable skill. In other words, paying for her time away from home would be justified if it would contribute in some way to her capacity to earn money in the future. As things stand, she obviously is hard put to defend to herself spending money for own personal benefit without finding some financial justification.
The interesting thing about this is that all her self-doubts ultimately relate to the fact that no financial value is placed on the work that she does. Even knowing as she does, that she works hard, that work seems to have no real value because it is not measured in money. It is not paid employment. Many mothers still say with great resentment that their husbands think they do nothing all day because they are at home.
Not unrelated is the author’s discovery during her time away that she still feels “a bit insecure because my only job description is ‘mother’.” Here, too, the issue relates to the value placed on being a homemaker and mother. Her insecurity comes from the feeling that she is not doing something others would consider important, or valuable. It is that old self denigration expressed in response to the question, “What do you do?” Answer: “I’m just a housewife.”
Unfortunately, expanded opportunities for women in the professions and workplace generally may have led to a further devaluation of women who are full time homemakers and mothers. The economic climate, which has made such a choice even less possible, is another contributing factor. Perhaps this also helps to explain some of the intense feelings between stay-at-home moms and those working at paid jobs that have been called “mommy wars”. Women can be made to feel defensive about what they do.
The fact remains that despite the idealization of motherhood in our culture, and our professed social concern for children, the currency truly valued in our society is money. Unless and until the care and raising of children by mothers or others is paid for in accordance with its true value, those who do that work will continue to be undervalued. Right now, however, it remains for those of us who do understand the value of that job – paid or unpaid – to act on that understanding.
The misgivings expressed by the mother in the article cited are all too common. It is hard to hold on to one’s important contribution as a full time mother – or father – when it is not rewarded in the currency that counts in the eyes of others. It is time that we gave full support and praise to Job Description: Mother.