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.

Reader Discussion

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on February 02, 2021 at 09:24:20 am

“With Love, Comes Responsibility.”
Pray then, that our Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Heart Will Triumph soon!

Motherhood, like Fatherhood, is a Blessed Vocation. What makes Motherhood and Fatherhood so difficult today, is a culture that does not value Motherhood or Fatherhood, as evidenced by the fact that abortion, the intentional destruction of a beloved son or daughter residing in their Mother’s womb, is considered to be an inherent right to be embraced and celebrated, while authentic Love is censored and deemed to be hateful. That is the battle that those who desire to be virtuous Fathers and Mothers because they desire to raise virtuous Sons and Daughters, are fighting in this period of Time in our Salvational History, when a counterfeit lukewarm church, that denies the essence of being in essence a beloved Son, Daughter, Brother, Sister, Husband, Wife, Father, Mother, appears to be existing within Christ’s Church, which has always valued the essence of being in essence, a Good and Virtuous Son or Daughter, Brother or Sister, Husband or Wife, Father or Mother.

How many of our Beloved Prodigal Sons and Daughters will be lost to this counterfeit church, despite the fact that our first responsibility to our children, is to help get them to Heaven?

What is needed is a Miracle, and every Miracle requires an Act Of Faith. There has never been a Time in The History Of Christ’s Church when those who have been Baptized Catholic, but deny the Sanctity of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, were in communion with Christ And His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, nor will there ever be.

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on February 02, 2021 at 11:26:38 am

Motherhood is life. This woman wants people to pay her to care about her kids. Hope her kids don't realize that. They deserve better.

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on February 02, 2021 at 11:35:23 am

Thoughtful article from an expert on yet another important example of ''a truth universally acknowledged," that Democrats destroy everything they touch: first, the Left undermined the stability and cheapened the quality of marriage by establishing no-fault divorce as the default legal position in all 50 states, and then by constitutionalizing homosexual marriage as a civil right, Democrats destroyed the culturally-stabilizing concept of marriage as a divinely-ordained union between a man and a woman; then, by institutionalizing welfare as a right and incentivizing welfare dependency, Democrats helped destroy the cohesive family unit as the nation's essential point of offense and first line of defense for morality, culture and education; then through its aggressive constitutionalizing and lavish funding of readily accessible abortion, the Left attacked creation, itself, the unalienable human right to life, and responsible fatherhood as a moral duty, with fathers-in-the-home as the culture's model of personal responsibility; then, through campaigns of ideological deconstruction in our universities and through ubiquitous media distortion, Democrats attacked and all-but-destroyed traditional concepts of femininity and masculinity; then, through their myriad and varied false ideological narratives of women's liberation.
And, now, through their foolish notion of wages-paid-mothers-for-work-performed, the Left would deny the fundamental value, besmirch the intrinsic dignity and sully the incomparable beauty even of motherhood, the bedrock of biological perpetuation, the fountain of agape love, the reservoir of psychological health and physical well-being, and the spring of cultural inheritance.

Shame on the Democrats!

"But most of all, when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember ... Mama."

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on February 02, 2021 at 12:40:52 pm

"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."
From one of the *studies*:
"The effect of parenthood on marital satisfaction is more negative among high socioeconomic groups, younger birth cohorts, and in more recent years."

Does it surprise anyone that "high socioeconomic groups" have a higher incidence of lowered life satisfaction ONCE children arrive? Could it be that they are unable to accept any restriction upon their actions, behaviors etc? Could it have something to do with the fact that for their entire lives they have themselves been coddled, "swaddled" in the warmth of glowing affection and (self) praise offered by a leftist educational monopolistic establishment determined to substitute the teacher for the mother-figure whilst simultaneously undermining the traditional family bonds and authority?
Any wonder then that when an infant, whom by its very nature and incapacity requires coddling, swaddling and undivided attention, that the high achiever experiences a diminution of praise and attention and that this would adversely affect his / her "life satisfaction."
When all you have ever known, and all you have received is "self-esteem" building rhetoric are you able then to transfer and / or transmit that same attention to a helpless infant? Apparently NOT!

BTW: kudos to Ms Lu for a fine essay AND her dedication and capacity for Love as demonstrated above.

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on February 02, 2021 at 12:43:26 pm

I don't mean this in a snarky way, for I agree with the writer's valorization of moms and momming. But, feeling unappreciated, unsupported, taken for granted -- these are not unique to mothers, or to women generally. The idea that, as between a man and a woman, a father and a mother, a husband and a wife, the latter is always and definitionally unappreciated, taken for granted, relative to the former is, I think, just that: a definition, a tautology. Bringing the abstract entity "society" into the argument in place of the individual man/husband/father and endowing it with subjective volition--"society" takes mothers for granted, "society" should do more for mothers--does not illuminate anything. Some relations are pre-political, and motherhood, probably the ur-relation of humankind and of all mammals, is one of them. Its essence is beyond politics and policy. What the writer here focusses on is the psychic nature of motherhood, and that indeed is unique to mothers and, largely, to women generally. But it can't be rendered in terms like unappreciated and taken for granted and underpaid. Politics, policy, "society," cannot do anything to alleviate the psychic strain--worse for some mothers than for others, in my experience--an individual woman feels contemplating motherhood or being a woman.

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on February 02, 2021 at 13:37:52 pm

I meant at the end, "or being a mother."

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on February 02, 2021 at 16:54:49 pm

Delicious typo, "the psychic strain'' of "being a woman."
Funny, innocent and Archie Bunker-like.
Brightened up the discussion.
Most married women would agree, if you changed "woman" to 'wife."
Reminds me of my many marriage malapropisms, which probably contributed to my divorce:)
Harmless and kinda funny. Bidenesque:)

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on February 02, 2021 at 20:49:05 pm

I suppose I can hardly argue it wasn't a parapraxis. Having two adult daughters who are both brilliant and are making their way in life--one majored in mathematics and the other in economics--I have been, for all of their lives, grateful to the women who were the true pioneers in persevering in the teeth of, and ultimately overcoming, the prejudices and ignorance that confined women to a narrow range of life choices for eons. But the war was won and now women, like men, have to seek contentment in a world that does not just present it to each of us on a silver platter. Motherhood may be unique to women, but its tribulations, as tribulations, are not categorically unique. While I don't believe the writer of this article had the intention, her piece in places suggests that the universe has not significantly and meaningfully changed for women since 1850 or even 1950. Every time a woman faces difficulty or disappointment in her life today--a betrayal by a man, a promotion at work denied, a presidential election lost--there are other women (and I am not saying this writer is one of them), and men, for that matter, who reflexively, unthinkingly, resort to the "explanation" that she is the "victim" of patriarchy, sexism, etc. That women are still oppressed, discriminated against, etc. New wine in old skins, yet the skins haven't yet burst. I have no doubt that individual women are still routinely treated badly by individual men. But for every woman denied a promotion at work, for every mother who is taken for granted by her husband, there is a man who was denied the same promotion, and a father who is taken for granted by his wife. We live in a post-victimhood world, but there are still so many who can't perceive it it according to any other rubric.

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on February 02, 2021 at 22:42:25 pm

Agree, the victim stuff is overdone, tiresome, and will die of abuse within another 10 years, if we're lucky. The race-victim precedent has been extremely profitable, so it has taught a lot of bad lessons. Everybody wants to be a victim. Lots of psychology involved, besides the money.

The motherhood matter is a bit different. Stay-at-home women born as Gen-xers or Millennials may (I do not know, my daughter and daughter in law are practicing lawyers) feel some deficit of self-esteem because they came of age when professional women were "liberated" and accorded special social status, while "mere housewives" were stigmatized. That's a point worth making briefly and then moving on. The author's extended point about motherhood (who's against it?) was a bit of a maudlin diversion from where she started out and should have stayed, that paying wages for being a mom is just another leftist ploy for creating yet another class of victims, unpaid housewives, exploited by white males (whose working middle class, along with combat veterans, constitute the only true victim class left in America, especially Appalachian white males.)

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on February 02, 2021 at 12:57:43 pm

well it appears that sleepy Joe has heard the plaintive wails of Ms Saushami:


wherein we find that The massive mammary gland of the Federal Reserve will now nourish young children to the tune of $46,000 by age 18.
Oh wait, this is for children NOT mothers.
I guess that will come next!
Talk about "populism" - it is ALWAYS POPULAR to give away free money, especially when it is not yours.

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on February 02, 2021 at 17:49:59 pm

Somewhat off topic from Ms. Lu's essay, but still related to providing resources to families needing a boost.
The baby bonds idea sounds similar to the Capital Homesteading idea that I came across a few years ago: http://www.cesj.org/learn/capital-homesteading/capital-homestead-act-summary/. I am not sure I fully understand how either idea would work in actual practice, and of course the devil is in the details. Conservatives do resist ideas tinged with "something for nothing", or unearned benefits, or the concept that equality is an unalloyed good by itself (but especially equality of outcomes vs. opportunities). And an account controlled by the government rather than owned by the beneficiary (or their parents) has its own issues (see Social Security). Plus giving people money who have not or do not exhibit sufficient discipline to manage it well suggests the outcomes will not end up as advertised. But it could still work as vote buying! Until it doesnt!

Thus perhaps this bill would still have merit if it incorporated some conservative restraints, such as:
1) the baseline principle is provided as a loan rather than a pure grant, to be repaid at age X (say between 18 to 35 years) from the growing proceeds, perhaps as RMD's as for IRA's today, or as inheritances via the Secure Act.
2) the provision of principle should be means tested; no social value (or "justice") is added by giving money to families that can well afford to establish a 529 or HSA or IRA equivalent on their own.
3) for this age cohort, the investment agenda and risk profile should really be aggressive growth or at least moderate growth, rather than a meager 3% anticipated return. $46K in net value 20 years from now might be better than nothing, but probably won't go as far as the Dem's might wish to provide "life parity" for lower income families.
4) would the gain above principle be taxed as capital gains? Or tax free, presuming this "step up" will provide a career that supplies multiples of taxable income over a lifetime (thereby reimbursing the govt.)?
5) if the child tax credit is increased (as $ received greater than actual income earned) then wise and disciplined parents might want to invest that gain directly themselves and achieve much the same result, with better control over allocations and investment strategies. This is unlikely, unless ...
6) provision is made to educate both the parent(s) and the teenaged beneficiary about financial planning, etc.

But if given the proper conservative cast in support of all citizens saving and investing for their future educational, medical, housing, and retirement needs, maybe this bill (as amended?) could and should be supported. Unity? or Schmunity?

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on February 02, 2021 at 18:01:26 pm

"... massive mammary gland of the Federal Reserve ..." A great phrasing, and an apt image (that might not survive editorial blog review at some other more public site).

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on February 02, 2021 at 19:03:27 pm

Motherhood is the most important feature of humanity. Think of where we'd be without it. >"Motherhood ranks abysmally by all these metrics." Then you should rethink your metrics.
A better response to Reshma Soujani would be laughing in her face. Taking her seriously by acknowledging her premises is a huge (unforced) error. It is the commoditization of children and motherhood, the financialization of family life by, literally, putting a price on everything.

Life already commercialized and politicized is exceedingly grubby. Topping it up by financializing it would make it unbearable.

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on February 03, 2021 at 03:08:35 am

A couple of quick points:

1.) I have met very few men for whom the most important people in their lives were not women; mothers, wives and daughters.

2.) The simplest way to destroy a person is to make them feel aggrieved, and let resentment corrode their soul.

3.) The notion that motherhood needs to be made more "equal" to outside employment is an effort to diminish, rather than improve the lives of mothers. The whole notion is not anti-exploitation, it is anti-human. Its proponents do not want to compensate mothers, they want to denigrate motherhood. Many things are debased when done for money. There is nothing that the CEO of the most successful corporation, or the most successful author, or athlete can accomplish that is even in the same class as what a mother can provide a child. This is the heart of the nihilistic resentment, the morbid loathing of human affection and dignity that pretends to care about the plight of mothers, when the goal is to disparage motherhood as just another occupation. Motherhood is extraordinary because no human life is ordinary, and this is the truth that torments those postmodern malcontents who cannot abide the thought that a mother is an entire universe to someone. It is the madness of the modern Herods who are driven to slaughter innocents because they think that they rule over kingdoms, but that are nothing more than ideological delusions.

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on February 03, 2021 at 12:30:46 pm

Z9 has it "just" right.
The authors aim is not to edify or elevate the position, and certainly NOT the condition of motherhood but rather to diminish it and to place it on par with any other 'union" job. As one example, consider the Teachers Union and the deleterious effect it has had on the "vocation" of the educator, which I might add had served as an in loco parentis substitute for the maternal figure.
Consider again, the teachers of our youth, prior to the rise and ascendancy of the American Federation of Teachers. Many in those days understood that theirs was a "noble" vocation freely engaged in not for profit nor for the opportunity to advance any particular pedagogy but rather because it was deemed both a necessary function and was a "good in itself" providing that satisfaction available only from exemplary aims and results (OK, not always). It attracted, to my mind, a more civic minded, better educated and far less partisan AND profit seeking cadre. To some, it was the secular equivalent of a religious vocation (at least as explained to me by many of my secular teachers).
With unionization, that vocational sense was diminished to the point of near absence. Now, the "profession", if that is still a proper term, is motivated by a clamor for more, more more - salaries, benefits, control and with the advent of the ChiComm Flu restrictions "pay for non-work." Additionally, the nature, education and character of those entering the field has changed dramatically. No longer do we observe combat veterans (mine were WWII and Korea) in the ranks. The political zeitgeist would either prevent their entrance or soon cause their departure. No longer do we observe a commitment to instilling a sense of civic duty in their charges but instead we find rampant radicalization of children. This coincides with the radicalization of the Union Leadership and the union itself. Can it be that the changes we observe in the demands of the union have a direct counterpart in the nature of those who now seek to enter it?
The substitution of financial (and ideological) incentives for the earlier "vocational" sense has diminished a once noble profession. It is inevitable whenever financial objectives are given precedence over other aims that the nature of the participants will change, their demands / aims will change AND finally, that those demands may not ever be fulfilled as they are self enhancing and self generating.

Are we to now consign "motherhood" to this fate? And, Yes, "fatherhood", too?

Another not dissimilar example would be the Doctors and Nurses Unions under the NHS in Britain. No Florence Nightingale are these caregivers!!!!!

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