The only way to affect real change for mothers in our country is to stop calling motherhood a career, says Danielle Vermeer.
One of the best pieces of marriage (and life) advice I ever received was from my mentor in college. She explained how in an intimate relationship like marriage, you should define and redefine every single word you’ve ever learned in order to develop a shared language with your partner. In a sense, you have a new family now, and that warrants a new language. My husband and I have learned this simple-in-theory-but-hard-to-implement lesson many times over, working through many miscommunications along the way. But those experiences taught us the value of always defining before debating. And that is exactly what I am going to do now in discussing motherhood.
I am first going to define the loaded words and terms commonly used to describe (typically modern, stay-at-home, Western) motherhood. Then I am going to debate that this terminology perpetuates ineffective communication and hampers efforts to actually improve the lives of moms and their families.
I will be using the following standard dictionary definitions of some words commonly used to describe being a mom.
- Job: A paid position of regular employment.
- Employment: The condition of having paid work; a person’s trade or profession.
- Profession: A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.
- Career: The general course or progression of one’s working life or one’s professional achievements; a chosen pursuit.
- Occupation: A way of spending time; the principal business of one’s life.
- Calling: A strong urge toward a particular way of life or career; a vocation.
- Vocation: A strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.
The post that sparked this response was Lisa Jo Baker’s “Why ‘Mom’ Is the Most Significant Job Title You Will Ever Have.” In the post, Baker applauds beyond-tired, haggard moms who often feel undervalued for their contributions to their family and society. She writes:
I live right outside of Washington, D.C., where people are defined by the question, “So, what do you do?” And “Mother” might be about the unsexiest answer ever uttered at a Capitol Hill mixer. But don’t let that fool you. “Mother” will always be the bravest, least ordinary, most difficult, and utterly challenging career that anyone ever hopes to lay claim to.
According to Baker, being a mother will always be the “most difficult and utterly challenging career” and the title “mom” is the “most significant job title you will ever have.” Those are some lofty (and incredibly loaded) statements, but how do they hold up to standard dictionary definitions? Not so well.
Being a mom is not a “job” because it is an unpaid position, may be irregular or never for some women, and is not part of one’s professional achievements or professional life. The secondary, more general version of “career”—a chosen pursuit—could apply to being a mom, but then it would disregard the primary definition of career: it being a job. Or as Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained on Sesame Street a while back, “A career is a job that you train and prepare for, and that you plan to do for a long time.”
Therefore, if a job is a paid position and a career is the course of one’s professional life, then being a mom is neither a job nor a career.
If being a mom isn’t a job or a career, what about it being some of the other terms defined above? Since both employment and profession relate to paid work, those two are off the table, which leaves occupation, calling, and vocation.
Being a mom can be defined as an occupation. However, saying that motherhood is simply a “way of spending one’s time,” even if definitionally correct, does not adequately define the significance or experience of motherhood. And that is because for mothers like Baker and others in many religious circles, motherhood is more than a time-suck; it’s a calling and a vocation.
Being a mom can be defined as a calling and/or a vocation. A calling or vocation relates to a “strong urge or feeling” toward a “particular way of life, career, or occupation.” Certainly many women feel strongly about pursuing motherhood, and perhaps even consider it a calling or a vocation. But many women have also felt callings or vocations for their (paid) jobs or other pursuits.
We now see that only three of the original seven job-related terms often applied to motherhood appropriately relate to being a mom: occupation, calling, and vocation. But something is missing from this conversation.
We are missing a critical dimension in defining motherhood in professional/financial-oriented ways: Motherhood is a relational rather than transactional relationship. Relational refers to the connection between two or more people or things. In motherhood, there is a strong connection and relationship between mother and children. In contrast, transactional relates to the exchange or transfer of goods, services, or funds in business. Of course, parents in our society transfer tremendous resources to their children, but that doesn’t make their relationship a business deal, nor would they likely want it to be.
Being a mom is best defined as a role and a relationship. The standard dictionary definition of a role is the characteristic and expected social behavior of an individual. For mothers in our gender-essentialist society, those characteristics and expected social behaviors may be nurturing or caring. But more than a role, being a mom is about the relationship with one’s children. Even though motherhood is hard work, it does not mean that it is a job, career, profession, or employment.
If this still makes you cringe or induces rage, it’s because you may instinctively know that motherhood is undervalued and underappreciated in our society, and that by calling it a job or career, it becomes something of value in our money- and power-obsessed, profit-driven society. No amount of rhetorical maneuvering will completely subdue those feelings.
Empty platitudes like “mom is the most significant job title you’ll ever have” not only ignore the reality of mothering being unpaid labor, but also allow policymakers to evade their responsibility to help families, especially working mothers. When a politician such as Mitt Romney proclaims that his wife Ann, a former stay-at-home mother to their five children, had the “harder job,” that doesn’t mean he intends to make life easier for moms and their families through improving policies on paid parental leave policies or tax breaks for child care costs.
This isn’t a one-sided political gimmick, though. Even Michelle Obama during her speech at the Democratic National Convention last election proudly claimed that her most important title is “Mom-in-Chief.” Both statements may be truthful and sincere, but they were also blatantly pandering to many moms who know they are working hard but are not being rewarded enough for it.
Most ineffective in hampering efforts to actually help moms and their families is my least favorite rhetorical slap on the back: “Being a mom is the hardest job in the world.” As Michelle at Balancing Jane explains, this rhetorical positioning of motherhood as the “hardest job in the world” has three results:
1) It sets up a definition of motherhood that alienates women who don’t fit those narrow confinements.
2) It creates a standard of “best” that leaves mothers constantly striving to do better with no hope of being satisfied with their performances.
3) It causes defensiveness that distracts us from collaboration and policy-level advocacy.
Framing motherhood as “the hardest job in the world” and then sparking this do-or-die battle over anyone who suggests otherwise (even tangentially) allows people (politicians in particular) to gain “Mommy Points” without actually doing anything to help parents.
In the context of this post, I am most concerned with Balancing Jane’s third point: that setting motherhood up as the “hardest job in the world” incites defensiveness among mothers and distracts us from the real issues at hand: the fact that the United States is the only developed country to not have any laws ensuring paid parental leave; the fact that childcare is more expensive than the average annual college tuition in 35 states and the District of Columbia; or the fact that in 31 states, rapists can have custody and visitation rights to their children. And the list goes on.
As author and feminist leader Jessica Valenti shares at Babble, mothering is one of the hardest things she’ll ever do, but it isn’t unequivocally the hardest, nor will it necessarily be the most important thing she’s ever done. She asks, “If full-time motherhood really is the hardest job in the world, why isn’t it paid? If it’s the most rewarding, then why do so many of us have other people care for our children?”
The simplest answer is that domestic work, including caring for children and other forms of “women’s work,” is systematically devalued precisely because women are doing the work. There is much to be said about the inherent sexism of this sentiment and the need for more up-take of critical feminist theory and activism on these issues, but for now let’s reflect on the real lesson learned in this define-and-debate exercise: Being a mom is not a job, even if it is hard work. And as long as we tolerate empty rhetoric like “being a mom is the hardest job in the world” and equate being a mom with a career rather than a relationship, we won’t affect the real change our country needs.
Danielle L. Vermeer is a social impact consultant by day and blogger on the intersections of marriage, faith, and feminism by night. Her writing and projects have been featured on the Huffington Post, ForbesWoman, the Daily Beast, and Role/Reboot. Connect with her at www.fromtwotoone.com or on Twitter at @fromtwotoone.