For all these reasons, motherhood is the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age. American mothers have smaller pensions than either men or childless women, and American women over sixty-five are more than twice as likely to be poor as men of the same age.
The devaluation of a mother's work extends to those who do similar work for pay. Even college-educated teachers of infants are often characterized as "baby-sitters," and wages for child care are so low that the field is hemorrhaging its best-trained people. Increasingly, day care is being provided by an inexperienced workforce -- what one expert calls "Kentucky Fried Day Care"-- while highly trained Mary Poppins-style nannies are officially classified as "unskilled labor," and as such largely barred from entry into the United States.
The cumulative effect of these policies is a heavy financial penalty on anyone who chooses to spend any serious amount of time with children. This is the hard truth that lies beneath all of the flowery tributes to Mom. American mothers may have their day, but for the rest of the year their values, their preferences, and their devotion to their children are shortchanged. As the twenty-first century begins, women may be approaching equality, but mothers are still far behind. Changing the status of mothers, by gaining real recognition for their work, is the great unfinished business of the women's movement.
But revaluing motherhood will not be easy. Even feminists are often reluctant to admit that many women's lives revolve around their children. They measure progress by the distance women have traveled from Kinder and Küche, and worry that if child-rearing is made a more tempting choice, many women -- those natural nurturers -- will drift back into domestic subservience. They fear that if women are seen to be mothers first, the very real gains that women have made in the workplace could be jeopardized.
Thus the standard feminist response to the fact that child-rearing marginalizes women is not to raise its status but to urge men to do more of it. Though this has been the cry for more than thirty years, almost 100 percent of the primary caregivers of young children are still women. This suggests that feminism needs a fresh strategy.
Conservatives, for their part, are not willing to put their money where their mouths are. Their eyes grow moist over family values, but they are loath to put any tangible value on the work that a family entails. They cling to the conviction that the only "good" mother is the self-sacrificing, saintly figure who performs the moral, caring work of society at the expense of her own equality and aspirations.
Social conservatives often expect daughters but not sons to renounce ambition and serve their families without compensation. They preach early marriage and childbearing, without warning young women that this increases their chances of divorce and lowers their lifetime income. They embrace an economy that relies on free or badly paid female labor, and then wonder why women express frustration with their lot. As Burggraf has so perceptively noted, "Getting 'women's work' done when women are no longer volunteering their unpaid or underpaid labor is what much of the public discussion of family values is really about."
It is true, of course, that caring for one's child is not a job that anyone does for the sake of remuneration. As The Giving Tree implies, raising a child is much more like a gift; a gift motivated by maternal love, the most unselfish emotion in the human repertoire. How can one be paid for a labor of love? The very idea seems emotionally askew, foreign to the essence of care. But just because caring work is not self-seeking doesn't mean a person should be penalized for doing it. Just because giving to one's child is altruistic doesn't mean that it isn't also a difficult, time-consuming obligation that is expected of one sex and not the other. The gift of care can be both selfless and exploited. As Balzac so memorably put it, "Maternal love makes of every woman a slave."
Copyright © 2001 Ann Crittenden
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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