Regardless of the reality of working mother’s in the U.S., we tend to imagine “American motherhood” in visions of a stay-at-home mom whose life moves to the rhythm of her children’s needs. Always present. Always solicitous. Steady and unwavering in her focus on her children’s and family’s slightest need. Our great American mother is unfailingly devoted to the all-consuming task of caring for others. Unfortunately, this ideal completely lacks any allowance for a woman’s own selfhood. It obliterates the needs of the female adult while also elevating her work so stratospherically high that it becomes beyond worth…to pay for such purity would be disrespectful. Mother’s work is beyond and above such dirty things as pay…or social security…or -gasp- healthcare! Interestingly, at the same time that it is too holy to be paid for it is also denigrated as skill-less and unworthy of pay.
In 1963 Betty Friedan wrote, The Feminine Mystique. This ground breaking and culture shifting book looked at how an idealized definition of femininity was constraining and entrapping women in certain roles and behaviors. In the ensuing years, much of that mystique has been dismantled as women stretched for liberation. But the idealized “American Mother” lingers as a left over residue of that repressive “feminine mystique.” It’s now okay for woman to wear pants. It’s now okay for a woman to work. It’s even okay for a woman to pursue a career…right up until it comes up against the idealization of American Motherhood. Once she becomes a mother, she is only truly pure if she will sacrifice it all for others. Trading work pants for maternity bra, industry for passive waiting, career for financial destitution all so that she may empty herself into children in a ritual of glorious sacrifice…complete with glowing halo.
If my criticism of the idealized American mother upsets you then consider, Daddyo. Fathers are not expected to give up their life’s industry to be a good father. They need to be present, yes. They need to be loving, yes. Today’s fathers need to be involved, yes. But they are also expected to take business trips, go to the gym without kids in tow, meet friends for bowling or biking or a beer every now and then. There is no unspoken expectation that they obliterate their own adult needs and contributions to the world. Sure, they need to compromise and give up a thing or two but they are not only allowed but unconsciously expected to continue adult pursuits. In fact, it could be argued that one of the greatest threats to marriage in America is a father who continues his life pursuits while his wife carries the double load of work and endless unpaid sacrifice.
So, in America we have this concept of motherhood that is not only emotionally unhealthy it is also a ridiculously unrealistic reflection of modern life. And, many new mothers find themselves blindsided by these crazy expectations just as they are hitting professional stride. Women today a were raised having been exposed to other women in positions of power and accomplishment and as heads of household. They have often worked hard to gain the skills of independence and financial solvency. But as soon as they grow a baby, they are expected to fill a role of endless under-valued emotional giving and care-taking…without pay. Women in our culture are expected to be the primary influencers on the growth and worthiness of our next generation of American adults. They are expected to do it for free…out of their pure and selfless heart. Out of our motherly love for our children. Fathers love their children. Yet they do not risk financial destitution to have children. So far our feminism has made it possible so that if mothers really want to (as in need to), they can work full-time outside the home while they give full-time within the home. Yipee! We can have it all…but only get paid less than a man…for part of it. Yipee?
And yes, I know you’re all uncomfortable now because I implied that a mother should get paid for raising our country’s next generation. But here’s the thing, we no longer live in hunter-gather societies where food and property are shared….where social structure is egalitarian as opposed to hierarchical…where babies are genuinely raised by the whole village. No, we live in a capitalistic, hierarchical, competitive world where privilege and comfort must be worked, fought, and struggled for across a very uneven playing field. But, you want women to sacrifice their whole life and attention to raising the next generation? And you are going to take care of them how? That paternalistic marriage thing never worked and is now fully broken. We can’t count on that. So, what do we Americans do? We expect women to seek employment for their own personal needs and contributions and dedicate themselves to a second job that requires far more hours of labor, endless on call, endless innovation, endless drudgery, endless giving…and no pay. Then of course just to make the ideal even more crazy we expect centerfold bodies, Pinterest lunches, perfect children, etc. etc. etc.
Wowie, we may need to work on this a bit! Perhaps a first step is to recognize the economic value of traditional “women’s work.” The unpaid labor that is contributed by women to the economy or “home production” as it is termed, was much debated in the 1940’s. Over protests by some, it was ultimately not included in the calculations of GDP as a measure of economic welfare. However, many now recognize that as women have entered the work force this unpaid labor of house work and caregiving is in fact a vital contribution to the economics of America…and the whole blinkin’ world! As women move to jobs that give them income, power, and a retirement without poverty or dependancy, we as a nation will need to ask ourselves how we will fill the very large labor gap they leave behind. Frankly, we are going to have to pay for it. Whether it is childcare workers or senior memory care specialists, they will want a working wage…and benefits. As family members we will want those workers to be educated, highly trained and thus well paid if caring for our loved ones. So, why not offer the same to a stay-at-home parent? That is what extended paid maternity leave really is. It’s paying American mothers or fathers to raise the next generation of American citizens. Other western countries seem to understand that we as a society are going to have to pay some one to raise our next generation. The unpaid, unvalued slave labor of womanhood is now free and able to work for herself and her future. If we want these former slaves to consider a job that is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year…without bathroom breaks or status…well we’re gonna need to pay them and offer a few benefits. Which is exactly what most countries do. We’re really the only westernized country to fail the next generation by so devaluing parenthood.
If you still think this is all a stretch to place monetary value on unpaid labor then consider what we learn from other areas of the economy. Open source tech is technology that has been developed by some one and then freely made available toall. The work of creation is unpaid. The people who improve upon it are unpaid. And this open source tech has become a massive stimulator of growth and innovation across broad swaths of American business. Modern economists are actively working on how to include these contributions in evaluations of economic growth and prospects., So why wouldn’t we include the unpaid work of women in economic measures? (Psst, it’s because the status of women is still rock bottom.)
Finally, there are lessons from WWII. In America, women were desperately needed in the paid work force. We all think of Rosie the Riveter, but what about her kids? During WWII, the federal government funded daycare centers across the country so that women could work. Let’s say that again…the federal government funded daycare centers across the country so that women could work! We want women to work now too. We need their insights and skills and education and life’s industry. So…daycare…federally funded daycare! Good quality! Well paid! Safe and full of adults with master’s degrees in early childhood development! Bright, light, joy filled spaces with lots fresh air and outdoor time. So, then parents don’t have to quit work when they can’t find good daycare.
Here’s what I want my kids to inherit when they have their own children. Eighteen months of federally paid parental leave per child that can be used up until the child turns eight years old. Require that at least 40% of that leave must be taken by the father or second parent. This will force work places to not discriminate against women of childbearing age or those who use their parental leave. Businesses will have to adjust. Fund social security and healthcare for all stay at home parents. Require all daycare and childcare workers to have a bachelor’s degree in education with extensive child development courses. Pay them very well. Since our knowledge regarding brain and child development keeps growing, I’d require yearly continuing education credits in learning differences and brain development. Fully fund or highly subsidize infant and childcare for all. Allow parents to decide whether to use the childcare funding for daycare or a nanny or other kind of childcare helper.
Don’t tell me our country can’t do this. The Danes do it. The Swedes do it. The French do it. The Italians do it. The Fins do it to excellent effect. Pretty much every other country does some variation of this. So, don’t tell me we are too weak, too diverse, too incompetent to do these things. We are quite capable. And frankly there is really no other choice. We are not egalitarian hunter-gatherers. There is no village to raise our children. We’ve decided that enslaving people of color to do unpaid labor is uncool. We’ve decided that enslaving women is kinda sorta not very cool either.
Remember that in the US we enslaved people of color up until 1865 and Jim Crow laws, segregation, racism, systemic terrorism, and lynching kept many American citizens of color in positions of low pay and menial jobs. For example, as “domestics” who did “women’s work” for little pay. Or as crop pickers, road builders, dam builders whose labor built the infrastructure of America but who never got credit or cash or status for this work. Personally, I don’t want an economy that is built on the subjugation of one group of people whose unpaid or underpaid labor fuels the wealth of everyone else. Those kinds of economies still very much exist in many parts of the world. In some places it is a caste system (India) or clear discrimination against a group that creates the low pay labor pool that supports the rest of the economy. But by far the most common unpaid or under paid labor that fuels the world economy is the domestic work of women.
This is not speculation nor hyperbole. We are not the only country dealing with the massive free labor vacuum that has developed as women have shed bondage for rights and freedom. But not all countries have chosen to pay for this work as western European countries have mostly done. Let’s take a look at other ways this labor vacuum works out. Let’s take for example…Lebanon. Here’s how domestic work is handled in Lebanon. Most women aspire to a status free of domestic drudgery and many also work outside the home. However, since the work does not simply magically get done they need to find some one to do these menial, low status tasks. So, recruiters in countries deep in poverty seek out women who are desperate to earn money for a family. They pull from the neediest areas of the Philipeans, Ethiopia, Nepal. They promise jobs, often as hotel housekeepers, in Lebanon or Saudi Arabia or Dubai or…? The women sign up for two years of good work with good pay that they can send home to their parents and children. Sounds kinda win, win doesn’t it? But poor women of color doing domestic work have no power. The minute they land in Lebanon they are met by their “agency representative” who immediately takes their passport. They do not go to work in a hotel. They find themselves in a home with an “employer” whom they call “sir or madam.” At this point they are slaves. They are commonly not allowed to leave the house. They are beaten or punished for mistakes. Madam may take their cell phone and keep it for as long as she wishes. Sir or his son’s may grope or rape her. She works all day and all night. In 2016, when Puk Damsgaard did her documentary on this, she found that at least one domestic worker died per day in Lebanon. Often this occurred when women fell from apartments while trying to escape. Women caught escaping and trying to reach an embassy have been video taped being hauled kicking and screaming into an “employer’s” car. And then sadly found dead from suicide days later. Apparently, Lebanon is known as one of the worst offenders in the abuse of domestic laborers. But the practice of importing low pay, low status women workers to fill the labor vacuum in homes and countries is a common alternative to paying parents to take paternity leave or paying to make nannies and daycares available.
Remember that in the United States of America, “the land of the free,” few women had the right to vote for their own representatives until 1920! Remember that like slaves, in the United States of America women and their money were legally considered the property of fathers and husbands in many states until 1900! Remember that like slaves, women in the United States of America could be legally beaten by their fathers and husbands up until the 1920! Remember that like slaves, women in the United States of America, who were illegally beaten by their husbands still had no police protection until laws requiring police to act in domestic violence situations came into effect in the 1970’s! (That’s about 40 years ago. I remember when the news began reporting this change.) Remember that in the United States of America women often had to be married and have their husband’s permission to seek birth control until 1972. Remember that in the United States of America, many “public” libraries would restrict women’s access to certain books well into the 1900’s. Remember that in the United States of America, women could not have their own credit card until 1974! Remember that in the United States of America, women could not run in marathons until 1970. Remember that in some parts of the United States of America women could not serve as jurors until 1975.
Okay, we as women and as a culture have come a long way in a short time. But our journey is very recent and far from complete. We may have allowed women to embrace things that were traditionally male but we still greatly devalue traditional domestic woman’s work. We so devalue it that any woman who does this unappreciated work becomes a saint. And that holy, pure, too beautiful for pay idealization of American motherhood is one of the things currently standing in our way. It creates a double standard that is preventing women from engaging fully in the world. It creates the so called “second shift” of work after work that drains American women. And this idea that saintly mothers can still somehow magically manage to do all the unpaid labor of the past and the modern work hours of today is truly magical thinking. This image of Holy American Motherhood and the magical thinking it engenders is dragging down our economy. And yes, if we allow it to go on we will continue to have a society that brings never ending stress and havoc to the lives of American children and parents.
 The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, 1963, by WW Norton Publishing.
 https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/wes/collections/women_law/ , Harvard Business School, Women, Enterprise, and Society.
 7 Shocking Things Women Weren’t Allowed to Do Until Fairly Recently, by Beth Dreher, 8/13/2016, Woman’s Day.