Being a Mom (or Dad) is More Than Enough

Being a Mom (or Dad) is More Than Enough August 10, 2013

Mother teaching her little childA few years ago I read an essay by a woman arguing that feminism did a major disservice to families by teaching women to evaluate their own worth by the same measures which men use to evaluate themselves.  She argued that the movement adopted the typical American man’s view of self-worth which says a person is only “worth” the economic capital he or she produces.  Consequently, she argued, women delegated the raising of their children (which in itself makes no money) to other people.  In some cases they even decided to forgo bearing children altogether in exchange for a pursuit of professional advancement.  It was a thought-provoking essay written by a woman arguing for the traditional patriarchal division of gender roles and identities.  As such, I now find myself in disagreement with several things she said, but I’m not sure she’s entirely wrong about everything she said.  I do think something was lost during the heyday of the feminist movement.  Her primary mistake, in my opinion, was in applying this only to women.

To my mind, the real problem here wasn’t that women decided they could succeed at occupations previously dominated by men.  The truth is that they very well can and do, often surpassing their male competition through a shrewd combination of decisive judgment and open-minded sensitivity.  The problem was that now both men and women learned to devalue the work that homemakers do simply because in itself it doesn’t generate income.  In other words, if I have a complaint with some factions of the feminist movement (particularly from the early days), it is the same criticism that I have for the rest of my culture:  Many of them adopted the materialistic, consumer-driven mentality which says that a person’s worth is determined by what he or she buys and sells.  For this reason, the man or woman who decides to “stay at home” in order to devote his or her time and energy into raising children must fight feelings of inferiority, as if the work they have chosen for themselves isn’t legitimate “work” at all.  But I am convinced that many of the most valuable things that people do yield intangible and unquantifiable benefits to themselves, to their families, and even to society in general.

If you purchase Pixar’s movie The Incredibles (one of my all-time favorite flicks), you will find among their deleted scenes an unfinished alternate opening which features Helen Parr (aka “Elastigirl”) going off on a party guest who blatantly dissed homemakers for their decision to stay home with the kids.  Helen’s retort is poignant and passionate, and I wish they had included it in the film.  If you haven’t seen it, I found a clip of it here:

Incidentally, I wonder what salaries would look like if people were paid according to the “big picture” value of their work?  I wonder who would have the largest salaries?  Would it be the guy who does facelifts and botox injections?  Or would it be the girl who counsels abused children, teaching them to trust adults again?  Would it be the guy who defends hedge fund managers or pharmaceutical executives from lawsuits?  Or would it be the woman who taught the lawyer how to spell the word “law”?  Whenever the subject of teacher salaries comes up (Disclosure:  I are one), I am often told that the reason my annual earnings are as little as one tenth of what the plastic surgeon makes is because it’s harder to become one of those (Question:  Is it ten times harder?).  They tell me anybody can become a teacher, and for that reason it pays far less.  Supply and demand, they say.  I understand just enough about economics to know there is some truth to that, but I don’t think that’s the whole picture.  I think ultimately once all the factors are pulled together, there’s an additional element that is being overlooked.  A society will reward most those who do the work it values most.  In a capitalistic culture where consumerism rules, those people who do the most to stimulate the economy are the most heavily remunerated.  And I mean in more than just words.

Take teachers again, for example.  People love to offer verbal praise for what teachers do. “Oh, I think what you do is just wonderful,” they say, or “I could never do what you do; I just have the highest respect for teachers!” It’s particularly pronounced if you teach students with special needs as I did for several years.  People would almost gush when I told them what I did for a living.  “Awww!” they would say, “That’s so great!” (Note:  Two moments a guy doesn’t want to hear “Awww!” are on his wedding night and when he tells someone what he does for a living).  Other times they say: “I really admire you folks for doing what you do!”  This is all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that our compensation is comparatively less than what it was 40 years ago (adjusted for inflation) so that most of us require second and third jobs to make up for what’s lacking.  For all the value my culture says it places on the work I do, the paycheck tells a different story.

But where does that leave homemakers?  What about the stay-at-home mom or dad? (“Stay at home” is a complete misnomer, by the way, in case you’ve ever been one)  What value do we place on their work raising children, teaching them to do almost everything they will learn to do as they grow up?  Obviously they don’t get paid salaries for what they do, but why not some other form of financial assistance?  It seems like a civilization which highly values parenting would find ways to provide some kind of assistance to those who do its most important work.  And what could be more important than what mothers and fathers do? Just like we do with teachers, I think we pay lipservice to the importance of parenting but then turn around and do other things which reveal a terrible undervaluation of the job.

I guess this topic is fresh on my mind lately for a couple of reasons.  One is that the other day a friend posted a link to a great blog piece by Rachel Martin which beautifully describes why “being a mom is enough.”  In fact it’s more than enough, but I presume her modest word choice simply exhibits that she shares my fondness for understatement (Question: Why don’t we call that hypobole?).  The second reason this topic is near to my heart at present is the same reason I haven’t been able to write anything in nearly a fortnight:  I’ve been too busy trying to juggle work and caring for children, whether my own or someone else’s.  In fact, most of my jobs relate to caring for someone’s children, and when I’m not doing that, I’m caring for my own.  Few things demand more from a person emotionally, mentally, or at times even physically than caring for children.  But people who don’t devote much time to that have no concept of how demanding this really is, especially if they aim to do it well.  They may say it’s valuable or noble, but then they turn around and do things that show they didn’t really mean it.

What I’m saying is that parenting—particularly full-time parenting—is indeed enough. It’s more than enough.  In my opinion, it’s far more valuable than most jobs out there because what you do for children when you devote the best of your time and resources to caring for them accomplishes things in their little minds and hearts that nothing and no one else ever could.  Teachers can’t do for kids what a mom or dad can do.  Doctors can’t, either, or lawyers, or politicians, or law enforcement officers, or social workers, or anyone else with whom they come in contact.  Children are wet cement, they say, particularly in the first few years of life.  Therefore, what work matters more in the formation of people than the early years in which parents play the chief role in guiding, teaching, and caring for them?

Fortunately, unlike cement, children are highly resilient.  They can overcome many of the mistakes we make in raising them.  Some of the most well-adjusted adults seem to have come from some incredibly dysfunctional backgrounds.  It’s one of the cool things about being a sentient life form–we can often make the best out of the most horrific circumstances.  But those children with the most advantages probably had someone decide that caring for them was worth sacrificing some things in order to give them the best upbringing possible under the circumstances.

Not everyone can afford to do this, of course.  Someone has to make a living, and not everyone can figure out a way to make enough money working from home (especially if he or she is doing it solo) while still remaining available as primary caregiver to someone else (or multiple someones).  You do what you can. I also want to reiterate that I disagree with those who insist it must be women who do this, as if ancient patriarchal societies are normative for all generations.  But if you happen to be one of the men or women who find a way to make being a homemaker their primary task, in my opinion you have picked a job that ranks among the top tier professions imaginable, regardless of the lack of compensation.  No one else can so powerfully and effectively shape future persons as you can.  Like the character in the clip above, you should be proud of the work you do because it contributes far more to society than litigation or rhinoplasty ever will.  It’s more than enough.

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  • Very well stated! I agree wholeheartedly.

  • carmen

    I can hear the feminist in YOU, Neil (and give yourself a pat on the back). I think that teachers

    ( most of us, anyway! ) just generally LIKE people and we think about ‘people-pleasing’ maybe more than others. Certainly, working around young people – whether in the home or in the classroom – demands a certain skill set that carries over to our interactions with all people; it makes us more sensitive to (and appreciative of) others who are in the same realm.

    I think you have identified a key reality in this piece – one I hear all the time. Young women who have basically ‘given up’ their careers (I have two professional daughters in this category) to have children. It’s a difficult decision for many young women and it means the loss of one income; many just cannot do it financially. The ones who do stay in their jobs (as opposed to being ‘stay-at-homes’) are caught in this emotional juggling act. I feel for them.

    You’re absolutely right that if you haven’t looked after children, you have no idea how taxing it can be. ( In fact, my husband used to tell people that I worked far harder than he did when I was at home with the kids and he was doing construction work – he GOT it; many don’t ). The pay-off, for us, is that we now have grandchildren around. It reminds us of the reason we had our own kids young. . . .

  • I think the original essay citing the writer’s problems with feminism was essentially beating up on a great, big old strawman. I know of no wave of feminism that ever directly insisted that motherhood and homemaking were entirely incompatible with being a self-respecting feminist — only that they should be more consciously considered in a woman’s life than they had been at that point in time. We used to live in a society where marriage, kids and domestication weren’t even choices, they were foregone conclusions in the lives of any woman. Feminism at the time called for more conscious, rational choice — do you WANT to be a wife/mother? If so, great; if not, don’t.

    That’s not to say that you don’t get some highly misled people out there who then extrapolate that to the Nth degree to where the message mutates into “having children bad!”, just as you get some highly misled people who take their liberation from religion and use it to mercilessly beat religious people over the head, no matter how kind or reasonable they are, just because they’re religious. But so often, many such essays unload with this tone of, “Y’know what I just hate about feminism?”, as if the specific overreaches of certain individuals define feminism itself.

    Feminism involves a WHOLE lot of people with a LOT of different ideas. As time goes on, I find it’s always best, when I make a case, that I simply call out certain people (“I really disagree with people who say x”) rather than a whole ideology (“This thing about feminism/atheism/etc really grinds my gears”). The baby less often ends up being thrown out with the bathwater that way.

  • A welcome refinement, as always :)

    I did try to qualify my generalizations to some degree, using words like “some factions,” etc. All generalizations break down at some point (except that one, of course). Although I also will note that one of the funny things about strawmen is that somewhere, in some situations, they resemble something real (even if not representative of the whole population). I used to think the kinds of thoughtless, unreflective, shallow ignorance which some atheists accuse religious people for displaying didn’t really exist in real life. I called them strawmen. But then I found the people they were talking about. Not as straw as I thought.

    But I will try to not generalize too much more about a movement which to my mind has brought mostly good things. I was more interested in celebrating the significance of homemaking.

  • Scott

    Was that essay by Christina Hoff Sommers by any chance? She came to speak at my very liberal high school and said some things that were close to what you mentioned. She said that a woman shouldn’t be told to pursue a career at the expense of a family life and then claimed that certain modern feminists do just that.

    A teacher of ours then became very angry with Sommer and claimed that women should put off family life in order to work to reverse gender stereotypes for the long term benefit of society. The argument quickly devolved into personal attacks and the repetition of previously stated points.

    Some of the girls I talked to afterwards said they were very turned off by what the self-proclaimed feminist teacher had said, and even if they disagreed with part of what Sommers said, they still thought she had some valid points. Many of them wanted to be mothers and they though that those anti-mother messages were what all feminists believe. A lot of these young and intelligent girls were thus driven away from becoming feminists.

    The image problem that feminism currently faces, where the majority of women and men do not identify with the term (http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/tabs_gender_0411122013.pdf) is at least partially caused by the very loud voice that people like my teacher somehow get. It makes for good ratings if you have bombastic guests with over-the-top claims.

    However, just like those who want a return to traditional gender roles are given a similar voice by media outlets, neither of these two sides actually represents what the majority of the population wants. That’s why we need more places like this: here we can have a better discussion than any mainstream media source can currently hope to host.

  • I looooove this post! I’m not a native english speaker or writter but i’ll do my best to explain myself: I’m a full time mom of two little boys, in a wrong called ” third world country”. Feminists are all over, but I feel sorry for those womens that decide not to let the men be men And start doing everything by themselves.It means more work for us , less for them, And them we start complaining about they not being man enough? Dah!

    I do love a man who runs around a car to open the door, It takes nothing out of him (meaning not losing any inches of their menly) but make them feel as héroe when we smile them back for such a small act of love.

    Now, God gave me a good husband, who understands the meaning of being at home. So he pays me a salarie for being a mom at home, raising our children as You said; to be people who can be good to the world.

    Every woman who stays at home with their kids, should receive a salarie… Being a mom is enough, but if your having any feminists feelings at all, ask your husband to pay You any kind of money, It will make You smile! even better ir he smiles, kiss You And give You just 10 usd…is’t not about the money… It’s about love & respect for your Job! I love my Job !

    Ps: is there any chance You or I can translate your post, so i can Share It with some friends?

    Thanks,

    Paula @Bogotá, Colombia.

  • Good article. I wholeheartedly agree on the value of “stay at home” parents. My wife is one, and that decision for our family has made our quality of life and ability to help our community much, much greater.

    But I do have some food for thought on some of your points that I don’t necessarily agree with:

    “It seems like a civilization which highly values parenting would find ways to provide some kind of assistance to those who do its most important work. And what could be more important than what mothers and fathers do?”

    I think we *do* provide some level of support for this. The ways are myriad: flexible work schedules, part-time opportunities, food assistance, housing assistance, free insurance for children in many states, etc. I had two friends who married at 18 and had two children before 20. The wife worked part time at home, and the husband went to school. They survived on subsidized housing and food assistance, along with loans from the government for school. She stayed home with their kids. They pinched every. single. penny. But they made it – and their marriage and family is stronger because they made it. Now they continue to raise their kids, but he was able to get a good job with his technical degree, pay back the loans, and ultimately buy a house. That’s just one story of people ‘making it’ using the support the system gives them.

    In terms of “compensating parents” – I think good parenting IS compensated by your legacy living on and succeeding. Our culture doesn’t need the Government to step in and reward good parenting – instead, it needs children raised by dedicated parents to take care of their parents in their old age, and to “honor” them with their life’s work. I know that my parents did an excellent job on me, and they take a lot of pride in my future success. They made enormous sacrifices for me growing up. I’m 33 – and when I was a kid they skimped and sent me to private school when my dad made around $15,000/year in the mid-80s — because they realized that the path up was educating their kids.

    “A society will reward most those who do the work it values most.”

    From a basic economic view, one could argue that water, food, and shelter are more valuable than teachers. But in fact, those farmers, engineers, and construction workers who ensure we have these things aren’t compensated very well, say, compared to plastic surgeons either. In fact, one could argue that clean water and food are pre-requisites for even needing teachers. That’s not to devalue teaching – it’s more to make an economic point. It really is about supply and demand. It may not be 10 times harder to become a plastic surgeon — but it may be 10 times harder for someone who really wants to be a teacher, a much more common “calling”. I do think we have a problem in that the aggregate demand for good teaching isn’t high enough – and as a result, we make it too easy for bad teachers to stay in jobs, which depresses salaries… So in that respect you have a point. But the issue is really complex.

    Anyhow, I have rambled long enough!

    Fred

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