In a recent piece on Babble, Feministing founder Jessica Valenti stuck her foot in her mouth by claiming that motherhood isn’t as hard as people say it is, a fact Valenti is convinced she knows after only two years as a parent. (“Guys, football is not that hard. I’ve been on the team for two years, and from what I can see on the bench, it looks like you’re just whining about being hurt when you get tackled.”) Several commenters on her piece scoffed at the idea that Valenti would pose as a parenting expert given her relatively minimal experience, and Strollerderby’s Joslyn Gray took Valenti to task in a post that both my colleague Meredith Carroll and I left a comment on expressing our own shock about Valenti’s thesis. To be fair, because we all understand Valenti is a valued feminist voice, it’s implied that the point she’s trying to make is that it’s okay for women to want to work outside of the home in addition to parenting a child, that other jobs are valuable to society and to a mother’s well-being, a point that is probably better expressed via the entirety of her new book rather than in excerpt form.
That being said, the red-flag idea in Valenti’s excerpt that many people took umbrage with is this: “the minutiae of our mothering isn’t as critical as society would have us believe” and “there are plenty of other jobs that are harder, and yes, even more important.” That last bit is really what set so many mothers off. Jobs that are more important than being the best mother you can be to your child? It’s hard to think of any job more critical than that. And you don’t have to identify solely as “a mom” to be taken aback by the idea. I’m not a woman whose identity is “mom first,” and I was appalled by Valenti’s assertion.
But according to Magda Pecsenye of Ask Moxie, the important idea Valenti may have been trying to express “is that motherhood isn’t a job, it’s a relationship.” Pecsenye goes on to say, “motherhood makes sense when you realize that it’s a relationship. Loving and nurturing your child is the relationship you have with your child …. All the stuff that has to be done for kids, though, those things are jobs.” And voila, suddenly we have a premise worth examining.
Pecsenye goes on to detail many of the jobs associated with motherhood, like “Changing diapers, researching carseats, driving to soccer practice, washing clothes, catching vomit with your hand, putting to bed, filling out forms, searching out a replacement wubbie on the internet, making lunches, making dinner, making breakfast, making snacks.” She says, “Many of those tasks are not that brain-intensive, and are not valued highly, across all societies. That’s why a) motherhood sucks so much, b) it’s devalued so much, and c) wealthy women have always outsourced as many of those tasks as they could, until recently, so they got the relationship but not the jobs.” She argues that a woman can enjoy and cultivate a good relationship with her children regardless of whether or not she is the one doing all of these jobs for her children, a point even the most moderate of feminists would agree with. She writes:
Some people like, or don’t mind, the jobs of raising children. Some people really do not like them at all. We shouldn’t be judging women for wanting to stay at home to do the jobs of raising children if they want to. Nor should we be judging women for wanting to do another job while someone else does the jobs associated with her children. That would be like judging someone who is a dentist because she’s not a fashion designer and vice versa.
What Pecsenye’s separation of the jobs of parenting and the relationship of parenting made me realize is that just as one can be a good mother and have a great relationship with her kids without doing the jobs of parenting, one can also do all the jobs of parenting and not cultivate a relationship with her kids at all. Being a stay-at-home-mom doesn’t automatically mean you are a great mother, nor does being a working mom mean you’re a horrible one. Sacrificing everything for your kids, running around, taking them places, buying them things, caring for their physical needs – none of it really matters if you’re emotionally unavailable to them, if you’re resentful of the process of caring for them. And that’s why mothering really IS the hardest job in the world, because so often it involves not only working outside of the home, but working inside of the home, doing the “jobs” of parenting and giving everything you have to your relationship with your child. I don’t say that to imply that motherhood is an act of martyrdom; I say that to illuminate the fact that for most people, people who cannot afford to hire out the jobs of parenting, raising a child well is quite a consuming pursuit. It doesn’t mean there isn’t time for anything else and it doesn’t mean that it’s not enjoyable, but it is intense. And very, very important.
Pecsenye notes at the end of her piece that when it comes to the age old battle of home-work vs. work-work, the most important things for a mother to do are “things that make us feel useful and fulfilled,” so that “the relationship becomes free and unburdened.” When we are happy our children are happy. But creating that kind of happiness in life takes a lot of effort, and that effort should not be dismissed. What Valenti’s essay fails to acknowledge (and what so much writing on parenting fails to acknowledge) is that not everyone is living the same kind of life. Valenti is a successful writer, an urban-dweller, married with one small child. I can’t presume to know how much money she’s making or whether or not she has hired a nanny to care for her child, but I can say that parenting may not seem as hard when you have a partner, but its intensity increases when you are a single mom or dad. Its intensity increases when you don’t have a lot of money, when you have to work a lot of other jobs and do the jobs of parenting. So I don’t think it’s fair for Valenti or anyone to presume to know how hard anything is for everyone. But I do think it’s a great idea to think of parenting as an enterprise that involves both job-doing and relationship-building. Focusing on the rewards of the relationship may make the job-doing easier for those of us who have to do the (yes, often hard, sometimes boring, awful, sometimes enjoyable, lovely) jobs.