Is motherhood really the hardest job in the world?
There’s no doubt that parenting — mothering especially — is hard work. There’s a certain look that moms get that’s difficult to describe … all I know is that in the same way I can spot a heroin addict on the street, I can spot a mom. Caring for children leaves you haggard. (Believe me, I know — the under-eye circles I used to get after too many cocktails are now permanent fixtures on my face.) So I will not argue when someone says that mothering is hard.
But let’s be honest — it’s not the hardest. And as much as I love my daughter, I don’t believe caring for her is the most important thing I’ll ever do either. Yet in my relatively short time as a parent, I’ve heard from dozens of people telling me that what I’m doing is the hardest, most important job in the world. I’m not alone; we’ve all heard this sentiment a hundred times over. Even “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua says parenting was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
Do American moms really believe that diaper changing trumps pediatric oncology? Or that child rearing is harder than being a firefighter or a factory worker?
And if we do believe the hype, 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? And if parenting is the most important job in the world, why on earth aren’t more men lining up to quit their frivolous-by-comparison day jobs in order to work for the world’s most important (and littlest) employers?
Now, this idea — that parenting is the most difficult job in the world — may just be cultural hyperbole, but it’s also a lie that too many of us have bought into. As one mom on Babble commented,
Whenever my guy friends try to tell me that my “job” ain’t so bad I ask them what other job is 24/7, no sick days, no breaks, requires infinite patience, complete self-sacrifice, the acceptance of abuse, complete responsibility for every minute of every day in the life of another, and has no option to quit. Motherhood is tough because we have no idea what we’re getting into until the day we’re locked in for life to a job we must believe is the most rewarding in life.
The last sentence is where the truth comes home to roost: We must believe that parenting is the most rewarding, the hardest, and the most important thing we will ever do. Because if we don’t believe it, then the diaper changing, the mind-numbing Dora watching, the puke cleaning, and the “complete self-sacrifice” that we’re “locked in for life to” is all for nothing. We must believe it because the truth is just too damn depressing.
In her best-selling book, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued, Ann Crittenden argued that there was a disconnect between the way motherhood is revered and the way it’s tangibly valued culturally and economically. “All of the lip service to motherhood still floats in the air, as insubstantial as clouds of angel dust,” she wrote. We say motherhood is important, but we sure don’t act that way.
Crittenden believes that if Americans were going to talk the talk, we should walk the walk. Her solution is for society to start valuing motherhood with “across-the-board recognition — in the workplace, in the family, in the law, and in social policy — that someone has to do the necessary work of raising children and sustaining families.” I agree. But Crittenden’s argument stems from the idea that motherhood is just as important as the empty platitudes and Mother’s Day cards would have us believe. To be sure, we need to make life easier (and fairer) for moms by valuing their work domestically, socially, and politically. But we also need a fundamental shift in the way we over-value mothering in women. Because if women continue to believe that the most important thing they can do is raise children — and that their children need to be the center of their universe — then the longer that American women will go unrecognized and undermined in public life, and the more frantic and perfectionist we’ll become in our private and parental lives.
Whether you call them helicopter parents or CEO moms — there’s no doubt that “over-parenting” is everywhere and mothers are leading the way. They’re making their own organic baby food while scheduling piano lessons, ballet class, and French tutors. They’re spending all day online discussing the right kind of baby wrap and whether their DS or DD (dear son or dear daughter) is reading enough, rolling over soon enough, or could be getting any number of colds, flus, or viruses that are going around their neighborhood.
We mock these moms as neurotic overachievers who are obsessed with their kids, but perhaps their zealous parenting is just the understandable outcome of expecting smart, driven women to find satisfaction in spit-up. All of the energy that they could be — and maybe should be — spending in the public sphere is directed at their children because they have no other place to put it. And because so many feel like they’re failing, I find it difficult to accept that this is simply the way women are happiest.
The truth is, we can simultaneously love parenting, find it fulfilling and valuable, while also recognizing that the minutiae of our mothering isn’t as critical as society would have us believe. We can love our children without believing the world revolves around them. We can derive pleasure from caretaking without thinking it’s the most important thing we’ll ever do or the biggest contribution we’ll make to society. And we can be exhausted, overworked moms while still recognizing that there are plenty of other jobs that are harder, and yes, even more important. Because when we see parenting for what it is — a relationship, not a job — we can free ourselves from the expectations and the stifling standards that motherhood-as- employment demands.
To find out why Jessica Valenti doesn’t consider her daughter her job, check out this interview with Meagan Francis!
Adapted from the book, Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti (New Harvest, 2012), with permission of the author.
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Do you think motherhood is the most important job in the world?
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