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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

The Price of Motherhood:
Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued

by Ann Crittenden

The following is an excerpt from The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued by Ann Crittenden (Metropolitan Books, February 2001)

About the author: Ann Crittenden is the author of Killing the Sacred Cows: Bold Ideas for a New Economy. A former reporter for The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, she has also been a reporter for Fortune, a financial writer for Newsweek, a visiting lecturer at M.I.T. and Yale, and an economics commentator for CBS News. Her articles have appeared in The Nation, Foreign Affairs, McCall's, and Working Woman, among others. She lives with her husband and son in Washington, D.C.

INTRODUCTION

The good mother, the wise mother . . . is more important to the community than even the ablest man; her career is more worthy of honor and is more useful to the community than the career of any man, no matter how successful.
--Theodore Roosevelt

When my son was small, we loved to read The Giving Tree, a book about a tree that gave a little boy his apples to eat, branches to climb, and shade to sleep under. This made them both happy. As the boy grew into a man, the tree gave him her apples to sell money, then her branches to build a house, and finally her trunk to make a boat. When the boy became a tired old man, the tree, by now nothing but a stump, offered him all she had left to sit on and rest. I would read the last line, "And the tree was happy." with tears flowing down my cheeks every time.

The very definition of a mother is selfless service to another. We don't owe Mother for her gifts; she owes us. And in return for her bounty, Mother receives no lack of veneration. According to an ancient Jewish proverb, "God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers." The Arabs also have a saying: "The mother is a school; if she is well reared, you are sure to build a nation."

In the United States, motherhood is as American as apple pie. No institution is more sacrosanct; no figure is praised more fulsomely. Maternal selflessness has endowed mothers with a unique moral authority, which in the past has been used to promote temperance, maternal and child health, kindergartens, a more lenient juvenile justice system, and most recently to combat drunk driving and lax gun controls.

If anything, awareness of the importance of mothers' work is increasing. In 1996 Microsoft founder Bill Gates and executive vice president Steve Ballmer gave Harvard University a $29-million state-of-the-art facility for computer science and electrical engineering. The new building was named Maxwell Dworkin, in honor of their mothers' maiden names. This may have been the first such recognition given to mothers' role in the creation of vast fortunes and an entire new industry.

When I was on a radio talk show in 1998, several listeners called in to say that child-rearing is the most important job in the world. A few weeks later, at a party, Lawrence H. Summers, a distinguished economist who subsequently became the secretary of the treasury, used exactly the same phrase. "Raising children," Summers told me in all seriousness, "is the most important job in the world." As Summers well knows, in the modern economy, two-thirds of all wealth is created by human skills, creativity, and enterprise -- what is known as "human capital." And that means parents who are conscientiously and effectively rearing children are literally, in the words of economist Shirley Burggraf, "the major wealth producers in our economy."

But this very material contribution is still considered immaterial. All of the lip service to motherhood still floats in the air, as insubstantial as clouds of angel dust. On the ground, where mothers live, the lack of respect and tangible recognition is still part of every mother's experience. Most people, like infants in a crib, take female caregiving utterly for granted.

The job of making a home for a child and developing his or her capabilities is often equated with "doing nothing." Thus the disdainful question frequently asked about mothers at home: "What do they do all day?" I'll never forget a dinner at the end of a day in which I had gotten my son dressed and fed and off to nursery school, dealt with a plumber about a leaky shower, paid the bills, finished an op-ed piece, picked up and escorted my son to a reading group at the library, run several miscellaneous errands, and put in an hour on a future book project. Over drinks that evening, a childless female friend commented that "of all the couples we know, you're the only wife who doesn't work."

Maxine Ross, a stay-at-home mother in Fairfax, Virginia, admitted to me that before she had her child, she too felt nothing but scorn for mothers at home: "We used to live in a four-family co-op, and two of the other women stayed at home with their children. One of them got a cleaning lady and I thought, 'Do you believe that? She has so much time, and she doesn't even clean her own house! What does she do all day, watch soap operas?'"

Even our children have absorbed the cultural message that mothers have no stature. A friend of mine gave up a job she loved as the head of a publishing house in order to raise her daughter. One day, when she corrected the girl, the child snapped, "Why should I listen to you? You're just a housewife!"

In my childless youth I shared these attitudes. In the early 1970s I wrote an article for the very first issue of MS magazine on the economic value of a housewife. I added up all the domestic chores, attached dollar values to each, and concluded that the job was seriously underpaid and ought to be included in the Gross National Product. I thought I was being sympathetic, but I realize now that my deeper attitude was one of compassionate contempt, or perhaps contemptuous compassion. Deep down, I had no doubt that I was superior, in my midtown office over-looking Madison Avenue, to those unpaid housewives pushing brooms. "Why aren't they making something of themselves?" I wondered. "What's wrong with them? They're letting our side down."

I imagined that domestic drudgery was going to be swept into the dustbin of history as men and women linked arms and marched off to run the world in a new egalitarian alliance. It never occurred to me that women might be at home because there were children there; that housewives might become extinct, but mothers and fathers never would.

A mother's work is not just invisible; it can become a handicap. Raising children may be the most important job in the world, but you can't put it on a résumé.

A woman from Long Island, New York, with a master's degree in special education was advised repeatedly that when she went job hunting she should not mention her thirteen years of caring for a disabled, chronically ill child. All those years of courageous tenacity and resilience would be held against her or, at best, considered irrelevant. She was warned that she had better pad her résumé with descriptions of volunteer work and occasional freelance writing.

The idea that time spent with one's child is time wasted is embedded in traditional economic thinking. People who are not formally employed may create human capital, but they themselves are said to suffer a deterioration of the stuff, as if they were so many pieces of equipment left out to rust. The extraordinary talents required to do the long-term work of building human character and instilling in young children the ability and desire to learn have no place in the economists' calculations. Economic theory has nothing to say about the acquisition of skills by those who work with children; presumably there are none.

Here is how economists have summed up the adverse effects of child-rearing on a person's qualifications: "As a woman does not work [sic] during certain periods, less working experience is accumulated. [Moreover] during periods of non-participation, the human capital stock suffers from additional depreciation due to a lack of maintenance. This effect is known as atrophy." In fact, the only things that atrophy when a woman has children are her income and her leisure.

The devaluation of mothers' work permeates virtually every major institution. Not only is caregiving not rewarded, it is penalized. These stories illustrate the point:

Joanna Upton, a single mother working as a store manager in Massachusetts, sued the company for wrongful dismissal after it fired her for refusing to work overtime -- until nine or ten at night and all day Saturday. Upton had been hired to work 8:15 A.M. until 5:30 P.M.; she could not adequately care for or barely even see her son if she had to work overtime. Yet she lost her suit. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that under state contract law, an at-will employee may be fired "for any reason or for no reason at all" unless the firing violates a "clearly established" public policy. Massachusetts had no public policy dealing with a parent's responsibility to care for his or her child.

A woman in Texas gave up a fifteen-year career in banking to raise two children. Her husband worked extremely long hours and spent much of his time on the road. She realized that only if she left her own demanding job would the child have the parental time and attention he needed. For almost two decades she worked part-time as a consultant from her home, and for several years she had little or no income. Recently the Social Security Administration sent her an estimate of her retirement income -- a statement that was full of zeroes for the years spent caregiving. Social Security confirmed that her decision to be the responsible, primary parent had reduced the government pension by hundreds of dollars a month in retirement income.

A mother in Maryland had a son who had been a problem child ever since kindergarten. At junior high, the boy was suspended several times; he was finally caught with a gun in his backpack and expelled. The boy's father sued for custody, and the mother countered with a request for more child support, to help pay the $10,000 tuition for a special private school. She also quit her full-time job to have more time for her family. At his new school, the boy showed dramatic improvement both in his academic work and in his behavior. When the case came to court, the father was denied custody, but the judge refused to require him to pay half the costs of the boy's rehabilitation, including therapy and tutoring, despite evidence that the father could afford to do so. A mother who did not work full-time was, in the judge's view, a luxury that "our world does not permit." So the mother was in effect penalized for having tried to be a more attentive mother, and the boy was forced to leave the only school in which he had enjoyed any success.

As these examples reveal the United States is a society at war with itself. The policies of American business, government, and the law do not reflect Americans' stated values. Across the board, individuals who assume the role of nurturer are punished and discouraged from performing the very tasks that everyone agrees are essential. We talk endlessly about the importance of family, yet the work it takes to make a family is utterly disregarded. This contradiction can be found in every corner of our society.

First, inflexible workplaces guarantee that many women will have to cut back on, if not quit, their employment once they have children. The result is a loss of income that produces a bigger wage gap between mothers and childless women than the wage gap between young men and women. This forgone income, the equivalent of a huge "mommy tax," is typically more than $1 million for a college-educated American woman.

Second, marriage is still not an equal financial partnership. Mothers in forty-seven of the fifty states -- California, Louisiana, and New Mexico are the exceptions -- do not have an unequivocal legal right to half of the family's assets. Nor does a mother's unpaid work entitle her to any ownership of the primary breadwinner's income -- either during marriage or after a divorce. Family income belongs solely to "he who earns it," in the phrase coined by legal scholar Joan Williams. A married mother is a "dependent," and a divorced mother is "given" what a judge decides she and the children "need" of the father's future income. As a result, the spouse who principally cares for the children -- and the children -- are almost invariably worse off financially after divorce than the spouse who devotes all his energies to a career.

Copyright © 2001 by Ann Crittenden

The above is an excerpt from The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued by Ann Crittenden (Metropolitan Books, February 2001).

 

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