Motherhood, Misestimated

It appeared in the New York Times as a full-page ad. “Dear President Biden,”the letter read. “You know this well: moms are the bedrock of society. And we’re tired of working for free.”

It was written by Reshma Saujani, who is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, an organization dedicated to preparing girls for computer science-related careers. Saushami called for called for a “Marshall Plan for Moms,” arguing that mothers had been especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis. This “Marshall Plan” would begin with “a short-term monthly payment to moms,” followed by a raft of “long overdue policies” including “paid family leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity.”

The letter ended as it began, with a plea for justice. “It’s time to put a dollar figure on our labor. Motherhood isn’t a favor and it’s not a luxury. It’s a job.

Maternal Distress

To some extent, these antics are to be expected when a new president takes command. Everyone wants to make sure that their pet issue is on the agenda. Women’s issues have been pushed to the back burner of late, eclipsed by racial controversies and environmental concerns.  A full page of the New York Times costs real money, but Saujani obviously realizes that this is not a moment for going small.

It’s fine to roll our eyes. This COVID-19 tragedy has already claimed more than 2 million lives, but Saujani seems happy to commandeer it for the sake of bumping her feminist agenda up a few notches on the Democratic to-do list. That’s a little crass. More importantly, her proposal is decidedly lacking in clarity. Is the goal of the “Mommy Marshall Plan” to provide short-term stabilization for struggling families? Or are we re-working family policy from the ground up, in order to establish motherhood as just one more form of remunerative labor? If it’s the first, it makes more sense to work through already-existing pathways, such as unemployment benefits. In the second case, the obvious response is that it’s very unwise to re-negotiate the social contract as an emergency-relief measure in an abnormal situation.

Mostly, it’s a silly publicity stunt. Still, it may be worth pausing a moment to consider the matter more deeply. Saujani’s rhetoric is irritating, and her reasoning is murky, but she is channeling deep frustration that is shared by American mothers. Most likely the left will ignore Saujani’s appeal, focusing instead on racial reparations or green energy. This could be an opportunity for conservatives, but as a first step, we should try to understand: Why are American moms so disgruntled?  

Maternity in the Time of the Plague

The schools closed, the restaurants went dark, and churches, office buildings, and shopping malls all shut their doors. Grocery stores and elderly-care facilities hung signs praising the “heroes” who worked there. No such honors were heaped on the people who were picking up most of the slack. They cooked extra meals, gave haircuts, planned home prayer services, and searched their memories for decades-old algebra formulae. They were parents. Most especially, they were mothers.

In some ways, we were lucky. Even Governor Whitmer of Michigan did not try to socially distance large families living under one roof. While some people endured solitary confinement, we had our own villages. I tried to focus on these positives last spring, as I juggled the extra cooking, extra cleaning, and “distance learning” with my five sons. Some days, it was hard to feel grateful.

It felt as though everyone else had the opposite problem from me. Celebrities took to Zoom to air specials for the bored and lonely people, while Big Tech offered free audiobooks, lectures, and games. Who, I wondered, had time for any of that? It felt like I was working constantly from the morning alarm until sometime around midnight. With the world in crisis, I was keenly aware of how I was expectedto bring order from chaos, to supply extra homey comforts, and to impose structure on the endless, identical days. The mental and emotional overhead was enormous just by itself.

A similar story could be heard, no doubt, in homes across America. That’s one major reason why moms were quitting jobs and cut back their hours. When social and communal order erode, we fall back on our last line of defense. Her name is Mom.

There is a deep truth here, which the pandemic highlighted in a particularly stark way. Mothers are taken for granted. We will always be taken for granted. It is nearly impossible to fix this problem, because in many ways, it’s really not a problem at all. We want our families to know that we will always be there for them. This is one clear way in which mothers just aren’t like ordinary workers. A high-value lawyer, athlete, or business consultant may want his employer to worry that his valued skills can always be taken elsewhere. That’s not part of the mom script. Far more than the clean laundry or fresh-baked muffins, moms exist to provide unconditional love. They reassure us that someone will always be in our corner, that somebody always cares.

In order to be that someone, you have to be taken for granted. Being taken for granted is a defining feature of mom life.

Mothers don’t have to feel exploited or underappreciated. Attentive husbands, appreciative children, and a supportive community can enable mothers to have richly rewarding lives, whether or not they pursue careers outside the home. Parenting inevitably requires sacrifice, but it can also pay some rich dividends: loving relationships, joyful memories, and a sense of purpose. These are precious benefits. Modern people often struggle to find meaning in their lives, which is especially hard when we understand that most of us can be speedily replaced in our business or place of employment. Mothers don’t have this problem. To our kids, we are irreplaceable, and everyone knows it. Some women may also find a fulfilling creative freedom in meal planning, gardening, decorating, and so forth. Leaving a job or career can be enormous sacrifice for some, but for others it may be freeing, enabling them to give themselves more completely to the people and things they really love. With the right kind of support, some women do thrive as mothers and full-time caregivers.

That coin has a flip side. It can be soul-destroying to be taken for granted, especially by the people you serve every day. If family members are demanding and ungrateful, moms may end up feeling less like Snow White (loved and adored by everyone in the household), and more like Cinderalla: overworked, undervalued, and noticed only for what they fail to get done. This trend may also be reinforced by our modern market economy. We all become used to thinking like consumers, and in such a world, moms may easily be viewed as inadequate service providers when their efforts fail to please. As our social fabric frays, mothers redouble their efforts to make up the extended relations, functional institutions, and helpful neighbors who may just not be there. In the end, the at-home mother may come to feel that she is losing on all fronts. She has none of the assets that the “public” world admires: demonstrated excellence, earned merit, and rarified skill. Her resume is blank. At the same time, though, she is expected to perform at a high level in a bewildering range of arenas, always knowing that failure will threaten the well-being of the family who have become her life’s central vocation.

Are American mothers more like Snow White, or are they Cinderella? On the whole, the data are not reassuring. Parents on average seem to have below-average levels of life satisfaction. The picture for American mothers is especially grim. Meanwhile, birth rates are falling sharply all across the developed world, which suggests that many women are simply opting out of the whole gig, by choosing not to have children in the first place.

The Toughest Vocation

Do moms need a Marshall Plan after all, then? Shall we throw buckets of money into paid family leave, state-run daycare centers, and even maternal salaries?

We do need to spend more money on families. Our current entitlement system subsidizes illness, poverty, and the comfort of the elderly, while treating parenthood as a private lifestyle choice. Somehow, we need to shift that balance. We want children to take their mothers for granted, but society at large should recognize that even mothers have limits.

Motherhood is not a “job,” at least in the modern economic sense. This is something religious conservatives may need to hear, but it’s also something feminists like Saujani need to hear. The work mothers do is both difficult and vitally important. But momming isn’t a job, and this is important to understand.

There are many possibilities worth exploring. Child allowances or expanded child tax credits would give families more resources and more security. We could subsidize maternity care, or offer parents vouchers for education or childcare. Paid family leave should be considered. Possibly the worst idea is the one Saujani points towards in her letter. We could spare women the indignity of “working for free,” by offering them salaries to care for their own children.

The surface appeal is obvious. In fact, computer-programming feminists aren’t the only ones who like to think of motherhood as “a job.” Religious conservatives do it too. In my own Mormon youth, I was frequently reminded that motherhood was “a full-time job.” It was also praised as the “toughest” or “most important” job in the world. Obviously, these precious phrases were meant to elevate motherhood, especially for young women like me, who were meant to undertand that domesticity was a proper parallel to the successful careers that our brothers and husbands were meant to cultivate.

I understood the purpose, but as a young mother reflecting back, I realized that the “toughest job” rhetoric was actually quite misleading. Motherhood is not a “job,” at least in the modern economic sense. This is something religious conservatives may need to hear, but it’s also something feminists like Saujani need to hear. The work mothers do is both difficult and vitally important. But momming isn’t a job, and this is important to understand.

There is no hiring process. Nobody gets promoted. Motherhood would never pass muster with the Department of Labor Enforcement. In some ways it is far more difficultthan a standard 9-5 job, but even so, we need to be honest. If it were viewed as a job, motherhood would be a dead-end job.

Think about the attributes that lend status to jobs in our society. We respect fancy credentials, and highly rarified skills. If you beat out hordes of cutthroat competitors to get your job, that commands some respect. If someone is willing to pay richly for the goods or services you offer, that adds a measure of prestige. Of course, it also helps if your job gives you a prominent position in the public square.

Motherhood ranks abysmally by all these metrics. It demands no credentials. No one else is competing for the privilege of raising your kids. The beneficiaries of your labors are both obscure and destitute, so fame and fortune are nowhere in the offing. On the bright side, there is a substantial reward at the end, if the job is well done. Your work will become obsolete, and you will be permitted to stop.  

No ringing rhetoric can change the fundamental reality that motherhood is, by earthly standards, a wretched “job.” If we want to give mothers the honor and recognition they rightly crave, we should not treat them like low-level government employees. Instead, we should understand that motherhood is not a job, but rather an honorable vocation which deserves public support. Realistically, there is no single, magic-bullet policy that will make mothers feel secure and valued, but we can work on the problem at multiple levels of government, and within our communities.

Pay attention to the workloads that women are carrying. Are they manageable? Do mothers have social outlets, and reasonable opportunities to tend to their own physical and mental health? Can young women see respected matrons within their community, living admirable and fulfilling lives? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” consider what measures might help to address the problem.

Moms are the bedrock of society. We also work for free. These truths are connected, and understanding that connection will help us to build a society that is pro-mom, and pro-family.