This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

A Belated Mothers’ Day Wish

Volga barge haulers: they had it easy.

Volga barge haulers: they had it easy.

Here is what I want: I want people to stop saying that motherhood is “the toughest job”. For the record — I am a mother. I especially want people to stop saying that stay-at-home motherhood is “the toughest job”. For the record — I am not a SAHM.

So this past Mothers’ Day, a greeting card company created this abomination, a viral “ad” in which several job applicants were fooled into applying for an unpaid “job” with no time off and no benefits, and which moreover listed insane qualifications (such as degrees in medicine, finance and culinary arts), as well as insane job requirements (such as standing “almost all the time,” no sleep and working a minimum of 135 hours per week). The “job” turned out to have been that of a stay-at-home mother.

As always, I am late to the party, and many commentators have already pointed out the really obvious: that this treacly “ad”, that supposedly celebrates mothers, actually imposes an impossible standard on minimally acceptable motherhood; that it is unfair to fathers in suggesting that they do not take care of children or the home; that real-life mothers, even stay-at-home ones, are in fact allowed to sit down and even sleep from time to time; and that knowing when to take your kid to the pediatrician is in no way equivalent to being a medical doctor, any more than home cooking requires the expertise of a professional chef. But, there are still a couple of things I want to comment on, inspired by this “ad”. After all, while it is merely a silly viral stunt, it does reflect certain mainstream ideas that I find supremely irritating.

Parenthood is not a job.

I’ll be the first to note that domestic labor — which is still done by women to a noticeably greater extent than men — is often treated as if it doesn’t count as a contribution to the family’s well-being, or isn’t real work. (Just check out the comments to the story about this stunt, if you dare. You’ll find plenty of predictable bullshit about how child care is mostly watching soap operas, or that raising children and maintaining a home isn’t work because women choose it.) Still, while I acknowledge that parenthood and homemaking involve a lot of work, they don’t constitute a job. I can’t stand people who refer to motherhood as a “job”. They are the same people who condescendingly explain that marriage is a “contract” (it’s not) and generally have this pedantic, mentorial habit of describing apples as oranges. A bicycle is a car, only different. An omelet is a tortilla, except for how it’s not.

Neither effort nor time consumption define a job. Lots of things are labor-intensive, yet aren’t jobs. Studying. Fitness. Hobbies. Volunteer work. A job is something you have in order to pay the bills. With few exceptions, you have a right to quit at any time, and you certainly don’t have to keep working if you aren’t getting paid. A job is an ongoing economic transaction, undertaken with the anticipation of well-defined material rewards. What really annoys me about characterizing motherhood as a “job” is the mercantilism implicit in that comparison. “Gee, isn’t it unfair how mothers don’t even get paid for mothering?” this sentiment seems to express. Except, a mother is not a nanny. To describe motherhood as an unpaid job is to suggest that remuneration should be appropriate just for taking care of one’s own children. Sure, it would be nice to have a welfare state where mothers and children enjoy a certain safety net — but that still wouldn’t constitute a salary for a job. You have a moral obligation to take care of your children whether or not you get any outside financial support for it.

I find describing one’s relationship to a child in terms of it being a “job” thoroughly repugnant. Are other family relationships “jobs”? Is being a spouse a “job”? A job that includes such responsibilities as showing affection or spending time together? What’s the exchange rate there? With rare exceptions, one of the defining characteristics of a job is its involuntariness. We have jobs because we need to eat and have roofs over our heads. Sure, I “love” my job, which really means that I don’t-hate it as much as one could not-hate a job — but make no mistake, if an obscure relative suddenly died and left me a fortune, I’d be doing something else. I think that’s true of most people, even if our ideas of the minimum necessary to walk away from the rat race vary wildly. And that’s the subtext accompanying the characterization of parenthood as a “job”: I could totally live it up, if it weren’t for the little brat that “came along” (have you noticed, by the way, how children are often described as having “come along”, as if they just wandered into their parents’ lives of their own accord?), so I am stuck in an unpaid job, thanks a lot.

Lots and lots of people voluntarily choose this “toughest job in the world”. You know why? Because it’s not a goddamned job.

Parents owe children big time.

Lots of people say that parenthood involves great responsibility, but people also like to send children on a guilt trip: “I gave you life! Worship me. I gave up my life! You’ll never be able to repay this debt.” It sounds almost as if parents do children a favor by having them.

In reality, reproduction is not a heroic act. It’s not an act of charity. It’s not a favor to the child. It’s a selfish choice, as are most reproductive decisions.

Children don’t ask to be born, and life isn’t as much of a joyride as a slug through varying degrees of adversity. We bring children into a world marred by violence, disease, natural disasters, poverty, cruelty and heartbreak. We — meaning parents — do this to satisfy our own emotional needs, and after our children’s baby cuteness is all gone, and they become rebellious youngsters, we tell them they have a responsibility to go out and get a job, and make something of themselves and stop relying on us for their spending money. Sure, that’s just the way life is, and I am not saying it should be any different, but at the end of the day, all these responsibilities that children acquire — succeeding at school, learning a trade, getting a job, cleaning their room — are unilaterally imposed upon them by the parents’ decision to give them life. And if we, the parents, bring children into this mud pit that is life, we OWE them the best possible tools for survival. We owe it to them to clothe and feed them, educate them, comfort them in their illness or sadness at all hours of the night and help them realize their dreams. They don’t owe us; we owe THEM.

No child, even a grown one, should ever have to hear mommy or daddy wax self-pityingly about parenthood being an unpaid job.

There is a distinct stench of upper-class cluelessness here.

Most women I know who chose to be full-time mothers are highly educated, financially secure, and have built careers. Their full-time motherhood is essentially a form of retirement. Keep in mind, we are not talking about women who are involuntary SAHMs by virtue of unemployment or dire family circumstances that force them to temporarily leave the workforce; nor are we talking about women who work in the family business and are still deemed to be “not working”. Being a stay-at-home mother by choice is a luxury. Most stay-at-home mothers, therefore, are of upper-middle-class or upper-class socioeconomic background. They have large homes, au pairs, landscapers, fancy home appliances, and just generally a wide range of resources to assist them and alleviate their childcare and housekeeping burdens. You need to cook like a chef to be an adequate stay-at-home mother, really? It must be nice to enjoy the leisure to pursue an elite hobby like fine cooking in a large, well-equipped kitchen, and to be able to afford gourmet ingredients on a daily basis. But what it really sounds to me like is that it’s not enough to stay at home to care for the kids, the husband and the house — you must be loaded too, and if you aren’t, then you fail at being a homemaker.

Besides, it’s not as if working parents’ chores do themselves. People who work full-time outside the home — sometimes more than one job — still need to feed their families, raise their kids, and keep the house neat. Working parents come home at the end of a long day and start cooking, doing laundry, helping with homework, vacuuming the carpets. If my son wakes up at 3 am with a tummy ache, I can’t just not deal with it on the ground that I have a paying job during the day. I must get up and take care of him, just like a stay-at-home mother would. But according to a not-insignificant segment of our society, people who work multiple jobs AND care for their kids are inferior parents because they won’t quit their paying jobs to do childcare and housework full-time. The double standard here is as glaring as could be. A working woman whose kids go to school is acting reprehensibly by letting “strangers” raise her precious kids while she “selfishly” earns money for her family; a stay-at-home mother whose kids go to school is a heroine because she bakes artisanal cupcakes or whatever.

I want to end this point with an anecdote from my legal practice. I can’t go into too much detail because the case is still ongoing, but the facts relevant to our discussion are as follows: a young man died in a horrific work-related accident. He was a married father of two. For the last five years of his life, he worked sixteen hours per day, six days a week. His wife would get up around 5 am to prepare the kids’ breakfast and lunches and school clothes; she would leave for her job about an hour later, just as her husband got back from his night job (a full eight-hour shift). He would feed the kids breakfast and take them to school, then go to his day job and work a full shift there. His wife finished her shift just before school let out, so she would pick up the kids and take care of them in the afternoon and evening. The young man would get home, shower, take a short nap, and then get ready for his night job. He never got more than a couple of hours of sleep in any given twenty-four hour period, except Sundays. (His accident, and his body’s reaction to the injury, in fact, had much to do with his extreme chronic sleep deprivation.) And with all that, this couple was able to maintain a modest lower middle class lifestyle, while scrimping and scrounging in order to pay for their kids’ college in some far-off future. But what of that? Their life was obviously a pleasure cruise compared to the round-the-clock martyrdom that is the existence of some suburban frau with a mcmansion, a Hummer and a gardner, heroic to the point of serving truffled grouse on a Tuesday night, amirite?

So pay attention, Ann Romney: this is the the kind of shit that makes people’s blood boil. People don’t hate you for being rich (if anything, ordinary Americans admire rich people by default), they hate you for being a tone-deaf holier-than-thou idiot who has the chutzpah to state — explicitly — that you understand what working parents are going through because you have had to operate a home appliance or two while your husband was slaying dragons in conference rooms; and they especially hate it when your supporters double down and declare that your lot as a stay-at-home mother is “the hardest job in the world”. Most families in this country are more like the one I described in the story above than like the Romneys. There is no greater insult to parents who literally work themselves to death to build some kind of future for their kids than to suggest that they are too lazy to be rich enough to not work outside the home at all.

In other words, fuck this Stepford wife-slash-mother bullshit.

That is all.

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2 thoughts on “A Belated Mothers’ Day Wish

  1. Yet again you hit the nail on the head, incisively sifting through the detritus and teasing out the most important points that many people are oblivious to.

    At first I wanted to say that the overall message of such ads (Motherhood is important; we need to valorize motherhood since it’s been given the short end of the stick in modern society) is a positive one, but the truth is that that message is muted, or perhaps co-opted is a better word, by people with another agenda, as you point out, a political quasi-religious one usually.

    It’s as if we still have a long evolutionary road to tread before our bodies catch up with our society. For example, I have been preaching to everyone that message “respect motherhood–protect children–etc” and “think of only having one child (i.e. we’re overpopulated)…but upon meeting some young Russian women at a cafe they remarked to me that the state promotes childbirth and gives subsidies for young mothers who have more than one child because of the dwindling population–I pretty sure that was what she said (my very very limited Russian). It gave me pause. One solution doesn’t fit all.

    All of this is context for your point that different economic/financial situations dictate different familial relationships/paradigms. As a teacher, I have met many working moms and my heart and respect goes out to each and every one of them. I’ve met a few of the upper middle class ones who whinge and preen about being SAHMs although I tend to feel (a little) sympathetic for their plight as well: as if their wealth has diminished their otherwise significant capacity to contribute to society at large and it seems to almost create in them a kind of a guilt complex and a “i-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself” dynamic. As a guy (reasonably educated and enlightened), I hesitate to say anything and just listen politely. Food for thought.

    Thank you for making me think, ha ha! Love the blog.

  2. Pingback: Drugs, birth control, police brutality and other links. | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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