By Laura Longhine
It seems that for almost as long as people have been declaring that motherhood is “the hardest job there is,” there have been women firing off essays angrily insisting the opposite—motherhood is not a job, not that hard (relatively), and not, really, all that important. “Motherhood Isn’t Sacrifice—It’s Selfishness,” declared the latest salvo, an op-ed by novelist Karen Rinaldi in The New York Times.
I read Rinaldi’s piece—in which her mother-in-law, poor woman, is outed as having uttered the offending phrase (“Motherhood, it’s the hardest job in the world!”)—with mounting irritation. “Calling motherhood a woman’s ‘job’ only serves to keep a woman in her place,” Rinaldi says.
I had read something almost identical six years earlier, when I was a brand-new mother myself. A mom from my childbirth class—a mom who had recently returned to her full-time job as a communications director—enthusiastically posted an article on Facebook excoriating the “motherhood is the hardest job” bromide. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to think about this argument, that motherhood was a role, a privilege, and one that could not and should not be compared to monetized work. After all, I was a feminist, wasn’t I? I knew that all the platitudes about motherhood hadn’t actually served any real mothers very well. I didn’t think a mother who worked outside the home was any less of a mom than one who chose to stay at home.
But now, six years and two children later, when I have been both a working mom and a stay-at-home mom, I know exactly what it is that rankles. True, “motherhood” is not a job. But caregiving, especially for small children, most definitely is. And whether it’s performed by a day-care worker, a preschool teacher, a nanny, or a mother or father, it’s one of the most low-paid, low-status jobs out there. Not coincidentally, it’s a job that is predominantly preformed by women. (Despite the much-celebrated rise in stay-at-home dads, only about 16% of stay-at-home parents are men. And 97% of childcare workers are women.)
When people say “motherhood is the hardest job there is,” they tend to be talking specifically about mothering as full-time caregiving. And in my experience, full-time caregiving for young children, while it can be rewarding, can also be incredibly isolating, stressful, and both emotionally and physically demanding. Even the worst, most outrageous boss is an adult who observes minimal pro-social norms. For the most part people at work won’t follow you around the office screaming hysterically because you didn’t get them the right kind of sandwich. Toddlers, not so much. Young children are all need, all the time. “The thing about being a stay-at-home mom,” one friend confided recently, “is it’s just so relentless.”
My children are both in school now, and I’m working part-time, and everything is so much easier than it used to be. But when I think about the months I spent at home with my three-year-old and my newborn, what I most remember is the feeling of desperately needing to pee. There were so many things being asked of me, all the time, that whenever a moment came in which a child was not immediately demanding something, I used it to complete some other task, to maybe wash a few dishes that had been sitting in the sink for hours, or get something to eat. As crazy as it sounds, I didn’t want to waste any precious minutes of “free” time going to the bathroom. And by the time I felt able to spare a couple minutes to pee, there would be another tantrum to soothe, a baby to nurse, a snack to fix, a diaper to change.
That’s not even getting into the emotional weight—the way parenting seems to highlight all your personality flaws (Quick temper? Aversion to being an authority figure? Tendency to waffle?) and demand that you deal with them. Having children is like therapy boot camp, and you don’t get to just stop showing up when you’ve had enough.
Moms who also work outside the home have another boatload of stressors to deal with. But I believe we can, and should, acknowledge that caring for young children is difficult and important work, and denigrating it helps no one. This is not a zero sum game—we can honor the difficulty and the importance of caregiving without taking away from the difficulties inherent in struggling to balance caregiving with careers.
In her book Why Have Kids? celebrated feminist Jessica Valenti devoted an entire chapter to “The Hardest Job in the World.” It comes under the heading: “Lies.” While giving lip service to the idea that parenting should be “valued,” Valenti spends most of her time belittling its importance. “Let’s be honest,” she says of the work of motherhood. “It’s not the hardest.” Valenti argues that the idea that motherhood is hard and important is just a myth the patriarchy uses to keep mothers at home. “It’s an empty cliché that strategically keeps women in the home through the sly insistence that motherhood is much more valuable than any job that women could have in the public sphere,” she writes. “Why become a high-paid lawyer or an influential politician when motherhood awaits?”
Go be a real, important person in the world, Valenti implies. Leave the childcare to other women—women who are less educated, less well-paid, and less influential than you are.
But if we could acknowledge that caregiving is both hard and important, maybe we would stop punishing women (and men) who step back from paid work in order to do it. Maybe we would make it more acceptable for mothers and fathers to create part-time and flexible work schedules that allow them to care for their children. Maybe we would start seeing child care as a legitimate profession for highly qualified caregivers, and pay them accordingly.
Is motherhood a job? I don’t think that’s the right question. If we take out the word “mother,” with all its tremendous baggage, the question becomes: is caring for children a job? Is it important? Is it challenging? The answer is then much clearer.
The caring for and raising of children must be done if we want to survive as a species, and it must be done well if we want future generations to be the kind of thoughtful, creative, and compassionate people who can deal with the various messes we are leaving them. And that is one hell of a job.
Laura Longhine works part-time as a writer, editor, and bookseller and part-time as the primary caregiver for her two lovely daughters, a job she shares with her husband and several excellent school teachers.