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The price of motherhood - A mother's selfless service

Why is it that a mother has the most important job on earth, yet among today's standards, her job is the least appreciated? The following is an excerpt from Ann Crittenden's book The Price of Motherhood.

And the tree was happy
The good mother, the wise mother... is more important to the community than even the ablest man; her career is more worthy of honor and is more useful to the community than the career of any man, no matter how successful.
--Theodore Roosevelt

When my son was small, we loved to read The Giving Tree, a book about a tree that gave a little boy his apples to eat, branches to climb, and shade to sleep under. This made them both happy. As the boy grew into a man, the tree gave him her apples to sell money, then her branches to build a house, and finally her trunk to make a boat. When the boy became a tired old man, the tree, by now nothing but a stump, offered him all she had left to sit on and rest. I would read the last line, "And the tree was happy" with tears flowing down my cheeks every time.

Selfless service
The very definition of a mother is selfless service to another. We don't owe Mother for her gifts; she owes us. And in return for her bounty, Mother receives no lack of veneration. According to an ancient Jewish proverb, "God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers." The Arabs also have a saying: "The mother is a school; if she is well reared, you are sure to build a nation."

In the United States, motherhood is as American as apple pie. No institution is more sacrosanct; no figure is praised more fulsomely. Maternal selflessness has endowed mothers with a unique moral authority, which in the past has been used to promote temperance, maternal and child health, kindergartens, a more lenient juvenile justice system, and most recently to combat drunk driving and lax gun controls.

If anything, awareness of the importance of mothers' work is increasing. In 1996 Microsoft founder Bill Gates and executive vice president Steve Ballmer gave Harvard University a $29-million state-of-the-art facility for computer science and electrical engineering. The new building was named Maxwell Dworkin, in honor of their mothers' maiden names. This may have been the first such recognition given to mothers' role in the creation of vast fortunes and an entire new industry.

Lack of respect for mothers
When I was on a radio talk show in 1998, several listeners called in to say that child-rearing is the most important job in the world. A few weeks later, at a party, Lawrence H. Summers, a distinguished economist who subsequently became the secretary of the treasury, used exactly the same phrase. "Raising children," Summers told me in all seriousness, "is the most important job in the world." As Summers well knows, in the modern economy, two-thirds of all wealth is created by human skills, creativity, and enterprise -- what is known as "human capital." And that means parents who are conscientiously and effectively rearing children are literally, in the words of economist Shirley Burggraf, "the major wealth producers in our economy."

But this very material contribution is still considered immaterial. All of the lip service to motherhood still floats in the air, as insubstantial as clouds of angel dust. On the ground, where mothers live, the lack of respect and tangible recognition is still part of every mother's experience. Most people, like infants in a crib, take female caregiving utterly for granted.

You're just a housewife!
The job of making a home for a child and developing his or her capabilities is often equated with "doing nothing." Thus the disdainful question frequently asked about mothers at home: "What do they do all day?" I'll never forget a dinner at the end of a day in which I had gotten my son dressed and fed and off to nursery school, dealt with a plumber about a leaky shower, paid the bills, finished an op-ed piece, picked up and escorted my son to a reading group at the library, run several miscellaneous errands, and put in an hour on a future book project. Over drinks that evening, a childless female friend commented that "of all the couples we know, you're the only wife who doesn't work."

Maxine Ross, a stay-at-home mother in Fairfax, Virginia, admitted to me that before she had her child, she too felt nothing but scorn for mothers at home: "We used to live in a four-family co-op, and two of the other women stayed at home with their children. One of them got a cleaning lady and I thought, 'Do you believe that? She has so much time, and she doesn't even clean her own house! What does she do all day, watch soap operas?'"

Even our children have absorbed the cultural message that mothers have no stature. A friend of mine gave up a job she loved as the head of a publishing house in order to raise her daughter. One day, when she corrected the girl, the child snapped, "Why should I listen to you? You're just a housewife!"

In my childless youth I shared these attitudes. In the early 1970s I wrote an article for the very first issue of MS magazine on the economic value of a housewife. I added up all the domestic chores, attached dollar values to each, and concluded that the job was seriously underpaid and ought to be included in the Gross National Product. I thought I was being sympathetic, but I realize now that my deeper attitude was one of compassionate contempt, or perhaps contemptuous compassion. Deep down, I had no doubt that I was superior, in my midtown office over-looking Madison Avenue, to those unpaid housewives pushing brooms. "Why aren't they making something of themselves?" I wondered. "What's wrong with them? They're letting our side down."

I imagined that domestic drudgery was going to be swept into the dustbin of history as men and women linked arms and marched off to run the world in a new egalitarian alliance. It never occurred to me that women might be at home because there were children there; that housewives might become extinct, but mothers and fathers never would.

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