Is parenthood a job?

Every year in time for Mother’s Day, produces a figure showing how much you’d have to pay for the job of “mom.” The answer is always in the six-figures for stay-at-home moms. It is based on mothers’ estimates of how much time they spend doing various tasks, which — like all time-use estimates — tend to be higher than what time-use studies have found. The dollar figure also involves adding a lot of cash for overtime. In the past, has not added the same proportion of overtime to employed mothers’ hypothetical salary total. In part for that reason, the “mom” paycheck for employed women tends to be about $50,000 lower (though most families that employ full-time nannies while both parents work do not pay that as an annual salary).

Regardless, I have been thinking about this forthcoming number in light of the recent flap over Ann Romney, and how she’d “never worked a day in her life.” It’s a stupid comment. If I go weed the lawn, I’m “working in the yard” even though I’m not getting paid for it. Even if she had a nanny to help (which I don’t know if she did), a brood of five involves a lot of effort from a sheer managerial perspective. And a lot of hands-on work too. We have a full-time nanny, and yet on any given weekday I will still be doing mommy work from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., a few nursing breaks, and then from 6 p.m. to likely 9 p.m. or later. To say nothing of weekends. I would also imagine that Ann Romney did quite a bit of work to support her husband’s career on the social side — entertaining various executives from Bain’s portfolio companies, attending functions, just as she’s doing now for the campaign. We don’t have a good word for this kind of job but there’s a lot of it in the rarefied realms of more traditional industries.

The issue arises from the use of “work” and “job” interchangeably. And here we get at a different question. Is parenthood a job? I’m not sure that putting family caretaking in the same category as a paid job does much good for our larger cultural debates. For starters, most people have one main paid job. Putting family caretaking in that same category implies a dichotomy: you can’t have two big jobs. And parenting is certainly a vast undertaking! Yet the vast majority of parents do both. It is the rare father who does absolutely no caretaking, even if he works a lot. And these days, it’s the rare mother who is not in the workforce at some point while her children are still living at home. Maybe some people believe children are shortchanged as a result. But in two-parent families, children are getting a lot more parental time and attention than they did in an era when more women “never worked a day in their lives.”

A second point: We are just back from vacation, and my husband and I are both swamped with work. I was explaining to my oldest son about why we were working. I said there were two reasons. One is we earn money for it and the second is that we enjoy it. While I happen to be in the same field I’d be in if I’d never had to work a day in my life, I would probably do things slightly differently if I weren’t getting paid. Earning money is a component of it being a job. But no one needs to pay me to talk with my kids, play with my kids, read with my kids, discipline my kids. It’s more akin to being a member of a religion. No one needs to pay you to go to worship services or pay you so you’ll strive to be a better disciple. You do it because it’s challenging work that you find meaningful.  

Arguing over whether mothers “work” backs the discussion into a corner that gives us the mommy wars, and headlines about dubious studies finding something that should sharpen or assuage some alleged guilt. But this is another false dichotomy. There can be categories of human activity that are socially valued but don’t involve a paycheck. All parents do that kind of work, and most do the paid kind too.

5 thoughts on “Is parenthood a job?

  1. My lecture this week is on “ideal” Haig-Simmons taxes…which suggest that if unpaid work is equivalent to paid work, it should be taxed equivalently, and I reference this annual article. The idea being that by its nature, the tax code discourages work that produces income (for elastic secondary earners) even though it should be treating it neutrally (so there shouldn’t be a tax advantage to cleaning your own floors–or rather, there shouldn’t be a tax penalty to paying someone else to do so).

    Would SAHP be willing to be taxed at 150K or whatever the going rate on is that year? Probably not. Not what we call politically feasible.

    So what we do instead is dependent daycare credits or tax exemptions for chlidcare, but they only cover a fraction of daycare most places and they have their own problems with changing behavior. And that’s only daycare.

  2. I find our society’s entire discussion around mothering to be fraught with issues. I like your point that there can be things that we do that are valuable and not paid.
    My bigger issue with unpaid labor is how our society has come to depend on it- for instance in schools. A lot of schools really rely on the volunteer work of some parents, and the parents who are able to volunteer during work hours are usually the ones who are not in the workforce. So we are in a sense relying on the fact that some parents choose to opt out of the workforce, and will have time to volunteer in classrooms. I don’t like that.

  3. Many people with elderly parents do lots of work, too, either hands-on or managerial or both. Historically, this job also fell to women, but it’s another important, unpaid obligation of human society.

    One of the reasons I’m trying to get a job with schedule flexibility, even though it’s less pay, is because I see this with my older friends. When you have kids in your 30’s, they’re home until you’re in your 50’s. By that time, you need to start helping elderly parents (and aunts and uncles)

    The economic factors measure only part of our human obligation.

  4. I don’t know why but i find that survey very annoying. Even the best mom isn’t the equivalent of a trained therapist or CEO, which I believe are 2 jobs that they usually ascribe to that position.

    I understand why they put it out and that everyone values paid work more than parenting, but it still bothers me.

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