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How Does Society Measure Mothers?

Posted by Theology of Home on
Photos by Kim Baile for Theology of Home

(Images by Kim Baile for Theology of Home II)

A person on her deathbed does not value what she bought with her earnings so much as what she was given without condition or calculation. 

By Noelle Mering

Quarantine and political violence have made city life considerably less appealing, leading to a noticeable exodus out of cities in favor of simpler lives and less expensive locales. Accompanying this trend are large numbers of women leaving the workforce. With school-age children suddenly at home, this can come as no surprise. Many erstwhile employed women surely lament this change and feel eager to get their children back in school and their jobs back on track. However, it isn't hard to see that the momentum toward simpler living in location is often in tandem with a movement toward simpler living in practice. 

In fact, for many, the lifestyle changes prompted by the turbulence over the past year are met with more relief than resistance. As early as 2012, studies show that 84% of working women longed to be at home. Despite that, analysis of women leaving the workforce in 2020 is often reduced to a two-dimensional, unassailable narrative that this trend is nothing short of a catastrophe for women. 

For example, some of the Approved Women of Influence (Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code, and numerous female celebrities) responded to this trend by taking out an ad in the New York Times calling on the Biden Administration to institute a Marshall Plan for Moms to address the inequity of women returning home to care for their kids. Their labor in the workforce, Saujani argues, has been replaced by unseen, unpaid labor at home, and as such needs to be accompanied by a paycheck.

Juggling school-age children who are suddenly, and seemingly perpetually, now at home is no small task, and a desire to ease these burdens is good and normal. Why object to a proposal to pay women to be at home? Interestingly, for many on the Left the possibility of incentivizing women to be at home is exactly what is objectionable about the plan.

In a discussion with The Aspen Institute, Saujani responded to this pushback. To the contrary, Saujani clarified, this plan is for the sake of facilitating women's return to the workforce, not to encourage them to be at-home moms. The payment is to be temporary and -- combined with expanded aid for childcare and job training -- an onramp for women back to their careers.

Look, if someone wants to pay me $2400 a month for mothering my kids I'm not going to blithely dismiss that, but the value system exposed and promulgated in the plan is not reflective of a society that understands what motherhood is, much less how to value it. For example: "It’s time to put a dollar figure on our labor." Saujani writes. "Motherhood isn’t a favor and it’s not a luxury. It’s a job. The first 100 days (of the Biden Administration) are an opportunity to define our values. So let’s start by valuing moms."

A favor is something one does gratuitously. A job is something one does contractually. Which is a nobler and a more fitting understanding of motherhood? Is motherhood a gratuitous outpouring of love manifested through the daily care and nurturing of persons who can little care for themselves? Or have we decided as a society that mothering our children without payment is exploitative and demeaning, and can only be valued by "elevating" it to the level a job with a wage? 

Under the auspices of dignifying the role of the mother, the Marshall Plan instead reduces it, once again exposing the bankrupt materialism of our age. "We all know that we don't value what we don't pay for." Saujani states. While this is a foregone conclusion in her mind, it is a metric that values a prostitute more than a wife. A person on her deathbed does not value what she bought with her earnings so much as what she was given without condition or calculation. 

Some of the confusion can be attributed to the battle that once raged between career moms versus stay-at-home: the so-called "Mommy Wars." The dichotomy posed to women was something like: will you be a cultured and intelligent career woman, whose sophistication places you above the menial tasks of daily domesticity? Or will you be a nurturing, there to kiss-the-boo boos sort of mom, unconstrained by any need for the accolades that accompany the quantifiable achievements of a career? In many ways it was a battle waged in the media more than in ourselves or our communities. 

In reality, most mothers' choices are driven less by simplistic narratives, than by the demands of the circumstances presented to them. I have rarely met an at-home mother who did not at some point think wistfully about the skills and gifts she no longer had time to foster and develop. Nor have I known working mothers of small children who did not often yearn to be with them more and dream and scheme of ways to hasten that possibility. The "Mommy Wars" for most, were more personal battles than external ones. Why did we complicate that which is already complex with the stoking of these wars? 

The answer might lie in part with the self-declared victors. The point was to take an already fraught decision for many women navigating the realities of child-bearing and financial needs, and to tip the scales to one side. If nature and instinct pull most of us to desire to nurture our infants and spend more than a couple of hours with our toddlers, then a social engineering campaign is needed to counter those instincts with a one-size-fits-all narrative promising our fulfillment is found in our employment, and that our worth is found in our wage.

As trends indicate, many women have come to realize that what appeared to be an ideal of womanhood was actually an ideology in disguise--and not one in service to them or theirs. It is long past time to ignore these old tropes and the self-ordained Voices of Womanhood. Let us instead concern ourselves with actual women desiring and striving to respond well to the circumstances -- and the people -- in front of them.

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