Is motherhood a "job"?

If so, then why are women paid less than men?

So the Queen told Kate Winslet that motherhood is “the best job”. Why do I find this so annoying? I am a mother. I do think mothers are undervalued. All the same, I’d rather not be told I have “the best job”. Particularly not if Hollywood actresses and heads of state are claiming it’s their dream job, too.

The Telegraph’s Jemima Lewis is railing against the Queen’s choice of words, too:

A job is a position for which you must compete. [...]  If you’re good at it, you might get promoted up the ranks and become an expert in your field. By contrast, any moron or sociopath can become a mother. There’s no line manager to assess your performance, and no hierarchy to ascend. You might think of yourself as an expert, but other mothers won’t thank you for telling them what to do.

To be honest, I find this argument rather simplistic (and would do even if it weren’t for the offensive choice of words). There are various standards and measures which make motherhood – as it is culturally perceived – pretty damn competitive. By contrast, there are lots of ways in which the world of paid work isn’t half as meritocratic as it pretends to be. While you might not need qualifications to breed, the sheer pressure of having a child can give even the laziest sod a kick up the arse. When it comes to parenthood – and, if we’re honest about current social expectations, motherhood in particular – it’s not so easy to slack off, coast and bluff because the stakes are too high. Some people still mess up, sure, but it’s not just their own lives they ruin. The judgment that falls on those who fail at parenting is harsher, as it should be, but that’s not a reason to ignore just how difficult parenting can be. Still, like Lewis, I cringe when the “best job in the world” line is trotted out, albeit for different reasons.

The Queen is not alone in her excessive praise of motherhood as a job. Motherhood is frequently rated more highly than the type of work for which one gets paid. Alas, more often than not, the people doing the rating aren’t suggesting for a moment that mothers should get an income of their own. On the contrary, the implication is usually that women who devote themselves to motherhood alone are better than women who don’t. For instance, writing on the Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Mail’s Peter Hitchens claims that “raising the next generation is a far more responsible and important task than being the chief executive of a minor Euro-province which is mainly governed from Brussels anyway” (note to Peter: it’s probably more important than writing for the Mail, too). Meanwhile, anti-feminist campaigner Suzanne Venker claims that feminists don’t appreciate “the most important job in the world” because “unlike most women, feminists have chosen not to focus on — or in many cases even have — husbands and children” (hence you’re a crap mummy if you have kids and an aberration if you don’t).

Of course, “the best job” doesn’t have to mean the hardest, the most stimulating or the most well-paid. If you start to say “well, I wouldn’t say it’s the best…” it could start to sound a little like you don’t appreciate your kids (or, depending on one’s perspective, that your kids are a disappointment). I wouldn’t want to suggest this for a minute about mine, who are – I’ll stick my neck out here – way better than the Queen’s kids, at least thus far. My children are the most important thing in the world to me. But comparing children and paid jobs seems to me deeply inappropriate. Whenever it’s made it’s a manipulative, loaded comparison. Either it’s to flatter – as in the case of the Queen and Kate Winslet – or it’s to stick the knife into those who aren’t doing their “job” properly. All us know that looking after one’s own children and engaging in paid employment both constitute forms of “work”. Even so, instead of valuing them both for different reasons, we play one off against the other as a means of making unfair judgements about individual women’s lives and decisions.

Motherhood offers non-material rewards. However, the serious issue we still don’t engage with – one which someone as wealthy as the Queen could never understand – is that financial needs don’t disappear. If the work of parenting rests most heavily on the shoulders of mothers, we do need to find a way of compensating for that so that women aren’t losing the freedom and self-determination that money can bring. Those who present caring for children as women’s natural vocation rarely suggest an income for mothers other than what might come from being a “kept woman”. Yet if the pay gap is down to natural, biological impulses (and I don’t personally believe it is), it should be unacceptable for women to be “naturally” poorer, with fewer opportunities and choices. If motherhood is seriously comparable to paid work – if mothers truly are “CEOs of the hearth” – then we shouldn’t condemn them to lives of poverty and/or material dependency. Perhaps this wouldn’t cross your mind if you’re the Queen or a Hollywood actress. But it crosses my mind – and according to some, I’m not even a “proper” mother.

 

Kate Winslet receives her CBE from Buckingham Palace. (Getty.)

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.