On “Work” and Motherhood

The following post/rant feels incomplete, but I am posting it in its incompleteness and imperfections as something I need to get off my chest and something I need to say.

Right now I am a full-time mom and full-time doctoral student, doing consulting and online teaching “on the side,” and people are always asking if I am going to do more. Are you going to go back to work? Are you looking for work? Are you going to do more? More? More?

I am not looking for anything “more” in my life right now. There is not room for “more” in my life, to the extent that even these questions feel like they are landing on my plate and spilling off the sides. 

These well-meaning people – and sometimes they are also parents – seem to not understand the work it takes to raise and care for a small human being who depends on you for everything. A small human being who is walking but does not yet understand danger, who, if you turn your back for more than 3 seconds is assuredly getting into the most dangerous thing she can find in her proximity. Which, you’d think would be nothing since we’ve “babyproofed” the house, but I’m finding there is no such thing as babyproofing, as she is always changing, what she can reach is always changing, and what catches her interest is always changing. What she can figure out is always changing (yesterday, it’s opening doorknobs, tomorrow, who knows?).

People ask this question as if motherhood is not work. Clearly, it is not. Clearly, I must be sitting around eating bonbons all day, watching Netflix while my baby happily plays by herself. Clearly.

Caring for children in our society only counts as “work” if you outsource it. If someone gets paid for it – which parents do not. You can work for a daycare taking care of other people’s children, and that counts as work. It’s your “job.” You can be a nanny, and that counts as work. You get paid for those things. But if you are a mother, it is not work. It does not count. You are not working. You are not getting paid. You do not have a job. You are staying at home, as if what happens at home is not work. And you really only have value if you are doing other work, other than the 24/7+ tending, caring, and loving of your child (and everything that goes along with that).

Then there is the title “working mom,” which is generally used to describe a mother who works outside of the home. To work outside the home and be a parent is definitely beyond full-time. However, a closer look at this title implies that moms who do not work outside the home are not working.

Recently a friend’s 4-year old asked me why I didn’t have a job. I have worked jobs near constantly since I was 16, and now at the age of 40, this means 24 years of working. When I quit my last job just before my daughter was born, it was scary – it was the first time not earning my own income, in over 20 years.

When he asked this question, it made me realize how from such an early age – before school even starts – our worth is tied to our paid employment. Our imagination about who we can be as human beings is tied to how we get paid.

In a recent New York Times op-ed , Adam Grant explored this theme, saying we should top asking our children what they want to be when they grow up, which is narrow, limiting, possibly disappointing job (or jobs – who has just one job in today’s gig economy?) they will get paid for. Instead, Grant proposes, we should be asking them what kind of people they want to be. 

And I can see this already happening to my not-even-10-month-old daughter. She kicks a ball, so someone jokes that she will be a soccer player when she grows up. She likes to dance, so someone jokes that she’ll be a dancer. Can’t she just enjoy the things she enjoys without having a career put on them, BEFORE SHE IS EVEN ONE YEAR OLD?! Part of the point of the article was just letting people do things to enjoy them, rather than get paid for them. 

Underlying this question is how much our worth is tied to our jobs, our employment. Even the language of “earning a living” implies this sense of worth. At a recent retreat, Dharma teacher Larry Ward called attention to this, saying you cannot earn a living – living is a gift. And to the point about being defined by our jobs, he said, “I never want myself to be defined so narrowly.”

Underlying this question is also how incredulous it is that someone wouldn’t have a job. How incredulous it is that mothering or parenting is working. At “jobs” I’ve had, I could stop to go to the bathroom by myself. I could step away from the desk to get a drink of water or coffee. I could leave my coffee on my desk and not worry if anyone was going to get hurt.

Mothering is definitely a different kind of work. It’s the work you will never clock out of. For me, it is work I do not currently want to outsource. It is work I enjoy doing – and it is work. It is work that needs to be done for our species to survive – tiny humans require constant tending, constant surveillance and protection. It needs to be done by someone, whether that someone is a parent or a hired caregiver. But it’s only “work” if someone is hired to do it. It’s only work if that person is not a relative.

It’s work that not even my husband fully understands, even though he shares in this work. “Do you want to do your school work while I cook dinner?” He asked one night. I laughed at this thought, knowing that these two things could not happen simultaneously. Either you cook dinner, or I do school work, but one of us needs to watch the baby. Someone needs to be watching her AT ALL TIMES.

This is nothing new. This is a story as old as humanity. Feminists have been telling this story for years. But I imagine, in some distant pre-capitalist time, that mothering and parenting were valued by societies as one of the most important things that needed to be done, along with procuring food, along with protecting the group. What could be more important than raising tiny humans, nourishing them and keeping them safe, teaching them values and skills, giving them the space and containment to thrive?

Maybe another way to look at this is to think about what happens if this work does not get done. What happens when children are neglected, not given the conditions to thrive? What happens when their basic needs are not met, when they do not feel safe? What would happen to humanity if this work did not get done?

When did we decide that this is not important?

Because even those who do have “jobs” doing this kind of “work,” they are also highly undervalued. Although it counts as “work” when it is outsourced, early childhood educators and caregivers are extremely underpaid. Daycare employees often make barely more than minimum wage (which, nowhere in America, is enough to survive on).

Let’s start valuing what’s important.

Let’s value the work of raising and caring for children, no matter who is doing it. 

Let’s value people based on their inherent worth as human beings rather than what kind of role they play in the capitalist system.

Let’s encourage our children by asking them the kind of person they want to be, and the things they want to do in their life.

And let’s stop asking anyone if they’re going to do more. We all pretty much have too much on our plates these days. Can we just assume that everyone is doing the best they can?