When Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney never worked a day in her life, maybe she didn't mean that all women who stay home with their children are sitting on their rears, not working. But she did give voice to a subconscious nationwide conception that childcare, whether it's done by mothers, or daycare workers, is not valuable work.
It is, after all, done at some point in life by the majority of women in the world, whether they are educated or not, whether they are qualified or not, whether they bake cookies with their children and do crafts and home school, or sit their children in front of the TV.
Keeping other people alive can take on all different forms, and I could sit here and list myriad examples of how the way I do it, as a stay-at-home mom, is most definitely labor intensive.
But the fact remains that American culture undervalues the concept of caring for children.
How can I say such a thing?
My friend, Beth, stays home from work, homeschools her children, and has a Master's Degree in Biology. Her neighbor, who was going back to work after some time at home, asked Beth if she'd babysit for her son. Thinking it might be good social interaction for her own kids, Beth tentatively agreed.
"What do you want to be paid?" her neighbor asked.
"What's the going rate these days?" asked Beth, knowing that she had recently paid $10 an hour for an evening babysitter.
"Around $2.00 or $2.50 an hour."
Surprised, Beth asked around to find out what other places and people charged for daycare. And sure enough, the going local rate was around $2.50 an hour for one child.
These rates are supported by data collected in a report in 2011 on childcare in Indiana (pdf). For full time work, Indiana residents can expect to find childcare in someone's home for just about $5000 annually, which is about $2.50 an hour for a forty-hour work week. Nationally, the average annual salary for childcare workers in a daycare center is around $20,000, which is slightly less than the average salary of an employee at McDonald's.
There will be huge variation from state to state on these rates, and many childcare providers receive government subsidies to make up the difference, but on average, childcare providers are some of the lowest paid workers in America.
Needless to say, having another child in her home five days a week, eight hours at a time was worth a little more money to her than her neighbor wanted to pay. She ultimately concluded that accepting that rate for in-home care was a devaluation of what she actually gave her own children: good schooling from an educated teacher, nutritious meals, a spiritual life, and of course the quality time, care, and love of their own mother.
Putting a price on her "services" made her recognize just how priceless was what she had to offer, and the $2.50 an hour rate came to feel not only like unjust payment for her qualifications, but also an insult to the value of her motherhood and the sacrifices she's made to stay home.
There is nothing morally wrong about women working outside the home, especially in cases where they are a primary provider for their families. But when we talk about demanding equal pay for women, and finding affordable childcare so that women can work, we tend to discount the fact that most childcare providers are also women, many of whom are asked to accept a pittance in order to accommodate other women who have "real" jobs.
When the dollar-per-hour rate we're willing to pay for childcare comes in well below the price we pay for a hamburger, we're giving testimony as to how little our society really values the care and formation of our children.