Earlier in the week, the Australian writer Catherine Deveney published a piece on motherhood and discourse in The Guardian. It mirrors some of my own arguments about the ways that our emphasis on motherhood is bad for women and men, albeit in different ways.
She opens by talking about the line, “Motherhood is the most important job in the world,” writing (emphasis mine):
For any woman who uses that line, consider this: if this is meant to
exalt motherhood, then why is the line always used to sell toilet
cleaner? And if being a mother is that important, why aren’t all the
highly paid men with stellar careers not devoting their lives to raising
children? After all, I never hear “being a father is the most important
job in the world”.
Now the commercial use of things we allegedly value is a much bigger topic. One could talk about the way we market the armed forces then use patriotic symbols to sell everything from cars to cereal, or the way fatherhood is likewise marketed (man strong!), or the small family farm, or whatever. But it’s true, on a marketing level, the “mom” is used to sell household cleaning products and products related to child-rearing.
The deification of mothers not only delegitimises the relationship
fathers, neighbours, friends, grandparents, teachers and carers have
with children, it also diminishes the immense worth and value of these
relationships. How do gay dads feel about this line, I wonder? Or the
single dads, stepdads or granddads? No matter how devoted and hard
working you are, fellas, you’ll always be second best.
And yes, that pisses me off. I work damn hard as a caregiver, and somedays I succeed better than others, I get irritated when I hear, “well, sometimes it just takes a mom to …” My internal response is always, “You have no idea how we order our lives.” Sometimes, perceived traditional gender roles to make the most sense for a given period or situation, but only sometimes, and always intentionally. We try never to let society’s sense of who should and can do what dictate our systems of parenting.
Or is a “mother” simply a term to describe an expectation to care for
children without payment? Is this empty slogan used to compensate women
for gouging holes from potential careers by spending years out of the
workplace without recognition?
Enabling this dogma devalues the unpaid labor of rearing children as
much as it strategically devalues women’s worth at work. If being a
mother were a job there’d be a selection process, pay, holidays, a
superior to report to, performance assessments, Friday drinks, and you
could resign from your job and get another one because you didn’t like
the people you were working with. It’s not a vocation either – being a
mother is a relationship.
And here is the really important point from this piece to me. As soon as we construct motherhood as “job,” our analysis has to fall into all the complex issues related to labor and value. That’s fine if you live in a privileged prestige economy, but most people don’t. Employers treat their workers as disposable, or as the enemy to underpay and exploit to the extent the law and market will bear (all while lobbying to keep the law on their side). Employees are forced to choose between work and family, pushed away from integration into a whole. “Job” is not a value-added term in our lexicon, at least not for most people who need jobs or are trapped in one or underemployed etc.
It really is time to drop the slogan. It only encourages mothers to stay
socially and financially hobbled, it alienates fathers, discourages
other significant relationships between children and adults and allows
men to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with heteronormative
roles in nuclear families (despite men sucked into this having their
choices limited as well).
Turning back to men, Deveney makes the points that I want to make as well: Fathers are alienated, benefit from perceived traditional roles, but – and it’s far more than a parentheses for me of course – are severely limited in how they can express themselves as man or father.
Father. Mother. Working. Stay at home. Tag-team. These are choices. Relationships. Trade-offs. Not jobs.
Speaking of jobs, can we fix those other labor issues too while we’re at it?