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.
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.”