Bringing home the bacon and frying it up too: homage to mother-work

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

The theme of last Saturday’s opening night event at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others, was “What do mothers make?”

The answers provided by the evening’s presenters–all women at various stages of their lives–were various, but there was a common theme: mothers make families, mothers make relationships, mothers make community.

Historically, in most societies this has been the primary role given to women—to serve as the emotional heart of families, to make the meals and make the homes that lead to strong, centered communities.

These days, in American society at least, women are expected to do all this and also be successful in their professional lives.  Only the wealthiest American families can afford to have a stay-at-home parent.

In most households I know, especially among people at mid-life or younger, both parents are working hard at their jobs and also trying to sustain a healthy home life.  And in most families I know, it still falls disproportionately to women to keep those home fires banked and burning bright.

We live in a society that measures personal success by income, but puts no monetary value on homemaking, parenting and elder care.

So all those hours that women put in to keeping our families and communities strong and healthy “don’t count.”  The nation sends a pretty clear message through our Social Security retirement system, for example, telling parents and caregivers that the work we do in our homes is an unacknowledged and unrewarded second shift.

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, "What do mothers make?"

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, “What do mothers make?”

A recent Pew study showed that 40% of all American households with children under 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for the family.  These women are bringing home the bacon and frying it up for their families—and arranging childcare, helping with homework, and doing all the regular home maintenance too, after their “work day” is done.

And then we wonder why so many children and teenagers are struggling with mental health, including ADD, eating disorders, addictions of all kinds, depression and lack of motivation.  We wonder why women are still not gaining equal representation at the highest levels of politics and business.  We wonder why so many women step off the leadership track in their thirties, when the mothering pressure is greatest, or “opt” to choose career paths that give them some precious flex-time.

It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at a society that squeezes everything it can out of mothers as workers and doesn’t recognize or value parenting and homemaking as the essential work it is.  Is this really the kind of society we want to call home?

I end with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Aurora Levins Morales:

“Ours was the work they decided to call unwork.”

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9 Comments

  1. This concept – of what a woman’s work is worth – is a theme that is being raised by the Women’s Major Group at the post-2015 sustainable development goal sessions at the U.N.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 4, 2014

      Excellent! Yes, imagine how GDP would change if all that home-making and care taking work were factored in!

      Reply
      • Here is an excerpt on what is needed for economic justice from an “intervention” that was delivered at the U.N. yesterday: “…transforming the gendered division of labour and assuring the redistribution of paid and unpaid work, while ensuring decent work and a living wage for all.”

  2. Ideally, we would move away from GDP as a measure of “success”, but yes, home-making and care-taking work should be factored in. I am a big proponent of redefining prosperity to include all sorts of things like ecological wealth, happiness, literacy rates, etc.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 5, 2014

      Yes I agree Diane–but it’s a tall order. Simply getting housework and child care to be counted as “real work” would be a major advance for women’s equality.

      Reply
      • Excellent point Jennifer. I am fortunate in this regards on a personal level, but we need to stop considering this “women’s work”.

  3. This has been a dilemma for so long–everywhere from international development bodies to feminist thought and within families themselves. How do we measure women’s work? Is there too much of a contradiction between how worth is measured socially and the fact that women’s work in the home remains unpaid? Are the ideological paradigms simply too contradictory? Your conference sounds so important and rich! Wish I were there!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 5, 2014

      And of course, how long will house work and child care continue to be considered “women’s work”? If men were doing it in equal measure, I bet we’d see some movement on this longstanding issue of whether it should be “counted” and compensated. I wish you were here too Margaret! Maybe next year!

      Reply
  4. Diane, I like your measures of GDP. Do you know about Bhutan where they measure Gross National Happiness?
    My life has taken interesting turns – I have been a stay-at-home parent, a parent in a dual income family, a single parent with 5 children and now I am a caretaker for my 98-year-old mother who lives with us. What works best for us is when we have 4 generations living together – my mom, my husband and I, and one of my sons with his wife and two preschoolers. Although, we give up a certain amount of privacy and peace and quiet, there are rewards to having the very old and they very young in the same house. To be honest, sometimes I feel trapped and I know that my son and his wife will be glad to be on their own. But for the oldest and youngest members of the family, I think the benefit outweighs any of the inconvenience of it. I realize this comment is kind of off the topic, but it does speak to the many roles of women, and yes, I can say first hand that I have given up financial security to have the kind of society that I want to call home.

    Reply

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