Maxine Ross, a stay-at-home mother in Fairfax, Virginia, admitted to me that before she had her child, she too felt nothing but scorn for mothers at home: "We used to live in a four-family co-op, and two of the other women stayed at home with their children. One of them got a cleaning lady and I thought, 'Do you believe that? She has so much time, and she doesn't even clean her own house! What does she do all day, watch soap operas?'"
Even our children have absorbed the cultural message that mothers have no stature. A friend of mine gave up a job she loved as the head of a publishing house in order to raise her daughter. One day, when she corrected the girl, the child snapped, "Why should I listen to you? You're just a housewife!"
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 over-looking 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.
A mother's work is not just invisible; it can become a handicap. Raising children may be the most important job in the world, but you can't put it on a résumé.
A woman from Long Island, New York, with a master's degree in special education was advised repeatedly that when she went job hunting she should not mention her thirteen years of caring for a disabled, chronically ill child. All those years of courageous tenacity and resilience would be held against her or, at best, considered irrelevant. She was warned that she had better pad her résumé with descriptions of volunteer work and occasional freelance writing.
The idea that time spent with one's child is time wasted is embedded in traditional economic thinking. People who are not formally employed may create human capital, but they themselves are said to suffer a deterioration of the stuff, as if they were so many pieces of equipment left out to rust. The extraordinary talents required to do the long-term work of building human character and instilling in young children the ability and desire to learn have no place in the economists' calculations. Economic theory has nothing to say about the acquisition of skills by those who work with children; presumably there are none.
Here is how economists have summed up the adverse effects of child-rearing on a person's qualifications: "As a woman does not work [sic] during certain periods, less working experience is accumulated. [Moreover] during periods of non-participation, the human capital stock suffers from additional depreciation due to a lack of maintenance. This effect is known as atrophy." In fact, the only things that atrophy when a woman has children are her income and her leisure.
The devaluation of mothers' work permeates virtually every major institution. Not only is caregiving not rewarded, it is penalized. These stories illustrate the point:
Joanna Upton, a single mother working as a store manager in Massachusetts, sued the company for wrongful dismissal after it fired her for refusing to work overtime -- until nine or ten at night and all day Saturday. Upton had been hired to work 8:15 A.M. until 5:30 P.M.; she could not adequately care for or barely even see her son if she had to work overtime. Yet she lost her suit. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that under state contract law, an at-will employee may be fired "for any reason or for no reason at all" unless the firing violates a "clearly established" public policy. Massachusetts had no public policy dealing with a parent's responsibility to care for his or her child.
Copyright © 2001 Ann Crittenden
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