|Motherhood by Mary Cassatt - 1902|
The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued
by Ann Crittenden 2001, Henry Holt & Co. LLC
In the United States, motherhood is as American as apple pie. No institution is more sacrosanct; no figure is praised more fulsomely…
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.”
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 overlooking 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…
The devaluation of mothers’ work permeates virtually every major institution. Not only is caregiving not rewarded, it is penalized. […] 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.
[…] motherhood is the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age. American mothers have smaller pensions than either men or childless women, and American women over sixty-five are more than twice as likely to be poor as men of the same age.
It may well be that mothers and others who care for children and sick and elderly family members will go on giving, whatever the costs or consequences for themselves. Maternal love, after all, is one of the world’s renewable resources. But even if this is so, there is still a powerful argument for putting an end to free riding on women’s labor. It’s called fairness. […] Such recognition would end the glaring contradiction between what we tell young women – go out, get an education, become independent – and what happens to those aspirations once they have a child. It would demolish the anachronism that bedevils most mothers’ lives: that although they work as hard as or harder than anyone else in the economy, they are still economic dependents, like children or incapacitated adults.
The standard rationale for the status quo is that women choose to have children, and in so doing, choose to accept the trade-offs, that have always ensued. As an African safari guide once said of a troop of monkeys, “The mothers with the little babies have a hard time keeping up.” But human beings, unlike apes, have the ability to ensure that those who carry the babies – and therefore our future – aren’t forever trailing behind.
Ann Crittenden is an award-winning journalist, author, and lecturer. Her latest book, If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, received critical praise and was featured in People magazine. Her previous book, The Price of Motherhood, garnered widespread media attention and was named one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year in 2001. The book is already being called a classic. A women's magazine editor wrote recently, "If The Feminine Mystique was the book that laid the seeds for the women's movement of the 1960's, The Price of Motherhood may someday be regarded as the one that did the same for the mothers' movement."
Crittenden was a reporter for The New York Times for eight years, writing on a broad range of economic topics. She initiated numerous investigative reports and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has also been a financial writer and foreign correspondent for Newsweek, a reporter for Fortune magazine, a visiting lecturer for MIT and Yale, an economics commentator for CBS News, and executive director of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Her previous books include Sanctuary: A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision, one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year in 1988, and Killing the Sacred Cows: Bold Ideas for a New Economy (1993). Her articles have appeared in every national newspaper and numerous magazines, including Foreign Affairs, The Nation, Barron's, and Working Woman.
Crittenden, a native of Dallas, Texas, is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and the Columbia University School of International Affairs. She completed all of the work except for the dissertation for a PhD in modern European history from Columbia. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served on the board of the International Center for Research on Women. She is married, has one son, and lives in Washington, D.C.