In fact, the history of motherhood is integral to the history of women in this country. Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that 86 percent of U.S. women ages 40-44 are mothers. Yet honoring motherhood has been relegated to overpriced brunches on one highly commercialized day in May. This only undermines the idea that mothering is important work that has contributed to society via infant health, childhood development, education and the ongoing existence of the human race.
“Just because we do the work of raising children out of love and a sense of duty doesn’t mean that it isn’t real, hard work,” says Ann Crittenden, a Washington-based writer whose book, “The Price of Motherhood,” is considered landmark research on maternal work.
In fact, a recent report by Oxfam calculated that women would have made $10.9 trillion dollars last year if they earned minimum wage for their unpaid work. That includes routine housework, child care, shopping for household items, tending to elderly relatives and other caregiving that is never acknowledged by economists or society. That’s a lot of money.
In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde wrote: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” No one should work free, yet our society accepts and even expects that mothers do just that. Being priceless and worthless at the same time is a terrible state of affairs.
And if we only celebrate our “worker” identity and not our “mother” identity, we risk contributing to the ongoing division of roles that forces many women to feel like they have to choose which identity is more important, then prove it. This can’t be good for women’s futures.
It’s time to turn the tide. “Everything begins with education. We must see the problem to change the problem,” says Joy Rose, director of the Museum of Motherhood and a mother studies scholar. “If women’s history and caregiving labor become a visible and accessible part of education — in history, economics and liberal studies — then we are assigning value to these individuals by studying their work. Right now we are invisible, performing invisible labor.”
What better time than Women’s History Month to begin to see, value and honor the unpaid work women do? Here’s how to get started.
Challenge the system. “We need to reexamine the values assigned to labor and evaluate if our current economic systems — which are rooted in patriarchy and capitalism — actually leave room for valuing things like care work,” says Rose, who also curated a new exhibit, “The Founding Mothers: Women in Herstory” at the University of South Florida. “It is clear the current system does not, so our current constructs need more scrutiny, not acceptance.” Instead of accepting the status quo, women can speak up in school board meetings, corporate offices, local politics and on social media, or use creative outlets to advocate for change.
Get woke. Or, at least, well read: For your personal reading list, or if you’re in a book club, Rose suggests including titles that examine motherhood in a historical, racial or cultural context. She specifically recommends “Motherhood and Feminism” by Amber Kinser; “Reproducing Race” by Khiara M. Bridges; “Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins; and “The Price of Motherhood” by Crittenden. Take a six-week class with the Museum of Motherhood in St. Petersburg, Fla., or attend an online event this month.
Advocate for policy change. Local and federal policies such as paid family and medical leave, equal pay, affordable child care, free preschool and breast-feeding rights directly impact mothers. Organizations such as MomsRising are actively working on these campaigns, and you can get involved on a city, state or federal level. “One of the best ways to recognize mothering work as real work is to give Social Security credits for that work, which the U.S. still doesn’t do,” Crittenden says.
Talk at home. “We can start on a micro-level, right in our own homes, talking about the ‘value’ of mothers: the work we do, the way we do it, what it’s worth, what are the various kinds of “worth,” etc.,” Rose says. “Share your knowledge within your family structure. Become a hyperlocal activist.”
Make social safety nets part of the larger conversation. Mothers fare better in societies with more social safety nets. “The more society shares the cost of caring for the young, the sick and the elderly, who are a huge percentage of our citizenry — it is fairer for women,” says Crittenden. “This is the work that women have always done for free.” Make sure your own kitchen table and social media discussions of the coming U.S. election include understanding the policy implications for women in general and mothers in particular.
Include heroes of motherhood in your Women’s History Month roundups. Celebrate women who prioritized and promoted caregiving, or policies that were designed to help mothers. For example, Jane Addams was an educated and wealthy social reformer who established the Hull-House as a collective settlement in Chicago in 1889. It was a groundbreaking effort to provide child care for women who had to earn wages. The founders went on to advocate for child labor laws and the establishment of juvenile courts.
A black woman, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, taught domestic science, a precursor to home economics, at Union Seminary in Ohio. After her husband’s death, Watkins Harper earned money to support her four children through speaking engagements and writing, including authoring the book “The Slave Mother.” “No race can afford to neglect the enlightenment of its mothers,” she said while speaking to the Brooklyn Literary Society in 1892.
Acknowledge that powerful women are also mothers. If you’re talking about Sojourner Truth, who delivered her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, don’t forget she birthed 13 children and boldly took a white man to court in 1838 to win rights to her son.
If you’re celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg, remember she was fired from a job for being pregnant, or her daughter was only 14 months old when Ginsburg began attending law school. Point out that she frequently talks about her husband’s active role in parenting and child care, and how that allowed her to focus on her career.
Watch your words. We can all improve our language around mothering work. Avoid saying “just a mother” or “only a mother” in describing yourself or others. Breast-feeding is not “free” — it involves a significant time commitment, and a woman’s time has worth. When a new mother has a baby don’t play into the idea that women are not being “productive” while home caring for their infants. Too many women feel pressured to return to paid work to be valued, and this leads to frustration, overwhelm and, at times, contributes to postpartum depression.
Support the artists and organizations spreading the message. Mother the Job promotes the economic value of mothers’ work through message-driven art and films. Family Equality advocates for LGBTQ families. Support the National Advocates for Pregnant Women or join the mailing list at MomsRising to receive alerts for legislative actions or petitions that need your signature.
Don’t forget our sons and daughters. We need the next generation to see mothering as work that is valued. Be specific about how groceries, dinner, laundry, clothing, play dates and vacations are organized and how much time is involved. Include your children in the planning, so they understand the thought and effort involved. Discuss the value of care work — from the cost of child care to the cost of a nursing home. Talk to boys about toxic masculinity and gender roles in the home.
This month, we can start to make sure that celebrating women always includes celebrating motherhood so that any depiction of women’s historical and modern-day accomplishments is truly complete.
Kimberly Seals Allers is a journalist and author of five books who writes about motherhood and the intersection of race, class and policy. She is the founder of IRTH, a soon-to-be-launched app to capture and address experiences of bias in maternity and infant health care. Follow @iamKSealsAllers and @theIrthApp to learn more.