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25 November 2012

Is motherhood a “job”?

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

By glosswitch Glosswitch

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).

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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.