Motherhood Is Not a Career 

Giving it an imaginary salary is damaging to all women

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A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama gave a speech on women and the economy. In his remarks, he noted how family-unfriendly workplaces often force women out of jobs, despite the financial strain this puts on families who cannot sustain a one-income household: "Someone, usually Mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that's not a choice we want Americans to make."

Note that the choice President Obama referred to isn't a woman's choice to stay home or work. He was talking about the heartbreaking decision faced by numerous two-income families: the choice between a family's emotional well-being and its financial stability.

But many perceived these statements as evidence of the president's secret hatred for stay-at-home moms. Some insisted the suggestions for subsidized day care and parental leave are "too expensive" and "disastrous" for the economy, unaware that declaring women's financial stability as "too expensive" might be more insulting than the president suggesting women might want to work outside the home. Many a stay-at-home mom blogger smugly insisted that her decision to stay home made her a better mother, since she didn't need something as superficial as money to sustain her. Others admitted their decision to stay home came at a financial cost, but the sacrifice of living on one income was "worth" living in a smaller home, or driving a less expensive car.

Both positions come from a place of immense privilege. Politicians declaring subsidized day care is an unnecessary expense aren't the ones dropping Junior off at a neighbor's house, hoping he gets fed. Mothers comfortably supported by a spouse's income aren't facing homelessness after missing work because the babysitter didn't show up. The people decrying Obama for wanting to ensure economic stability for working women reveal not only their privilege, but a continued disdain for the groups Obama's policies would benefit most: low-income families, single mothers and working women.

The Deseret News ran a piece responding to Obama by explaining why stay-at-home moms are better than the type of moms he wants to help. The article cites snippets of studies regarding stay-at-home parents, cobbling them together to claim that women who stay home raise healthier and smarter kids. After all, according to the D-News, "stay-at-home moms shape their children into who they are" by creating positive home environments. This, apparently, cannot be replicated by a working mother, or a stay-at-home dad.

The snippets from the studies used by the D-News are likely true. But they don't discredit the multitude of equally valid studies showing the positive or neutral impact of two-income households. In 2010, the American Psychological Association reviewed 50 years of research on working mothers, all indicating that the children of working parents "didn't have worse academic or behavior problems" than their peers. And the D-News piece fails to acknowledge the issue of false causation. Are children of stay-at-home parents healthier and smarter because Mom didn't work, or because they came from a financially stable family that could afford nutritious food and good tutors?

The D-News also claims stay-at-home motherhood is a career worth an imaginary $117,000 a year, while working moms are only worth $68,405 (not including the actual real-life money they earn). This is the most insidious response to Obama's message, because it tries to trick the public into thinking motherhood is a job or career, when it's not.

I don't mean that motherhood isn't a difficult, rewarding and satisfying endeavor in many ways similar to a job or career. While it may be similar, it isn't the same thing. A job or career is work that earns financial compensation. I don't consider my role as a mother a "job," just as I wouldn't list "wife" or "sister" on my résumé. Many important life pursuits do not bring in a paycheck, including parenthood, volunteering and pursuing an education. Suggesting that income is the only way to measure the value of an activity is classist and limiting.

But implying that motherhood is a career worth lots of imaginary money allows people to ignore the negative impact our current career model causes for both working and non-working mothers. If motherhood is a career, it doesn't matter if a woman is forced to leave her job due to lack of maternity leave or lack of child care options; she already has a "career" waiting for her at home! Employers can justify hiring discrimination, assuming women are just going to eventually get pregnant and leave for the "high-paying" work of staying at home. Motherhood is a career until a woman tries to re-enter the workforce, now it's a gap in her résumé. Motherhood is a career and apparently fatherhood is not, so forcing women out of the workforce gives them a raise to a pretend $117,000!

Stay-at-home parenthood is a worthy life choice, with economic benefits, and should be recognized as such. I support subsidized child care for working parents, as well as financial incentives for families relying on a full-time stay-at-home parent. Overall, I support policies that recognize a variety of work/life balance models, a point Obama tried to make when he stated that women shouldn't be forced to choose between motherhood and career. By recognizing that the relationship between mother and child is different from the relationship between employer and employee, Obama doesn't denigrate motherhood, but gives women the respect they deserve as both mothers and people.

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