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4 January 2018

Should we be legally obliged to pay back our mothers for raising us?

Taiwan’s supreme court has just ruled that two sons are contractually obliged to pay their mother a percentage of their earnings. 

By Glosswitch

In the  1976 chart topper “No Charge”, a little boy presents his mother with an itemised bill for all the household chores he’s performed. Rather than tell him to bugger off, the mother, a master of passive aggression, decides to use the medium of song to present her child with a list of her own:

For nine months I carried you

Growing inside me – no charge

For the nights I’ve sat up with you,

Doctored you, prayed for you – no charge

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For the time and the tears.

And the cost through the years, there’s no charge

When you add it all up.

The full cost of my love is no charge.

Duly chastened – or possibly just creeped out – the boy decides he’s already been “paid in full” (although whether he mows the lawn or makes his bed ever again is yet to be confirmed).

Adorable though it is, it’s worth pointing out not all every parent follows the “No Charge” rule. For instance, 20 years ago one Taiwanese mother persuaded both her sons to sign contracts stipulating that they would pay her 60 per cent of the net profit of their incomes once they were earning.

Back then they were young adults; now men in their Forties, they’ve just been told by Taiwan’s supreme court that the contracts are binding. One son, a dentist, now owes his mother the equivalent of £554,000.

Is this really fair? The mother, referred to in the judgement as Lo, raised her sons alone after divorcing their father. She feared – correctly, it seems – that nobody would want to take care of her in old age.

But do adult children owe their parents such a debt? While there’s something morally satisfying about the idea that we get to pay back those who took care of us, can parental love really be viewed in such terms? I’m not so sure.  Yes, parents – mothers in particular – make many sacrifices, but don’t we still need to ask who are they doing it for?

When a tantruming child declares themselves to have “never asked to be born”, they’re making a valid point. The origins of parental love are far more narcissistic than altruistic. As Schiller’s Franz Moor puts it, why should we venerate “a piece of vanity, the besetting sin of the artist who admires his own works”?  Regardless of whether or not I chose for my sons to be born, they had no say whatsoever in the matter. One cannot vote in favour of one’s own existence if one does not yet exist.

And this is where parental love – and specifically maternal love – gets incredibly messy. Selflessness cannot be disentangled from selfishness, self-abnegation from projection and appropriation. There are many reasons why mothers do what they do; compassion is one, coercion another, self-interest a third. And maybe all of this could be written off – no charge – if it were not for the gender imbalance in play.

For Lo and her sons, the political has become very personal. Relationships are complex and upbringings vary. There may be valid reasons why an adult child wants little to do with his or her mother. A woman’s security should not depend on the legally enforced “gratitude” of her offspring; children should not have to remain permanently indebted to the flawed human beings who raised them. A structural problem, one of patriarchy’s fundamental design flaws, cannot be fixed in this way.

Nonetheless, it matters that a combination of biological necessity, structural inequality and cultural pressures lead women to contribute far more than men to the raising and educating of children. This is essential work, perhaps the most essential there is. It is grossly unjust that its economic value is disregarded, leaving one half of the human race far more likely to experience poverty, exploitation and social isolation than the other. All people benefit from the existence of others; why should one sex be paying the price?

Someone should even the balance, which is why, when Lo’s younger son was reported to have said the contract he signed violated “good customs”, as raising a child should not be measured in financial terms, I couldn’t help thinking “sod off”. How bloody convenient that yet again the mentally, physically, emotionally draining shit-and-string-beans daily grind of childcare should be considered quite literally priceless. Then again, do I give 60 per cent of my own income to the woman who raised me? No, I do not. Where would it end? (Ideally at the point where one of my sons becomes a Premier League footballer, but that’s a whole other story.)

Sugary celebrations of maternal love and devotion, such as that offered by “No Charge” , have been conning women for millennia. A cheesy poem and  a mug that says World’s Greatest Mum doesn’t sort out pregnancy discrimination, the elder care crisis or pension poverty. But nor does the idea that the work of raising other human beings – a social good – can only be compensated within each individual family unit.

What is needed is a far more fundamental revision of how we understand work, dependency and the relationship between public and private spheres. As Katrine Marçal writes, “we are all dependent and therefore society’s task cannot be to separate those who produce from those who consume. We are all accountable to each other and to ourselves”.

Until we are willing to make a shared commitment to one another based on the recognition of mutual dependencies, the fears of women such as Lo will not be unfounded. The problem, though, does not lie with her or her sons;  it lies with all of us, regardless of whether we’re at a caring or cared-for stage of our existence.

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