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The Devaluation of Motherhood

When I was around eight months pregnant with my daughter, someone close to me told me they’d assumed I’d decided not to have children, and then asked if I could share why I’d chosen to wait so long. I opened my mouth to answer and…realized I didn’t have one. Or at least not one I could articulate.

This sparked months of self-examination. Not only about why I’d chosen to wait so long, but why the decision to become a mother had been so agonizing for me. I had a lot of what I assumed were typical concerns of someone deciding whether or not to embark on the adventure of parenthood: Would I enjoy it? Would I be able to handle the exhaustion and frustration enough to be a good mom? Was it irresponsible to have a child given the state of society and the literal state of the earth (#climatechange)?

I wrestled with these questions, came to conclusions that worked for me, and decided to try and have a child. I became pregnant and then experienced a fair hum of anxiety throughout my pregnancy. It was uncomfortable, but I assumed it was par for the course – this was an enormous life change, after all.  

But there was something more behind this intense mix of anxiety and hesitation I was feeling. It didn’t immediately go away after my daughter was born and it took me a long time to put my finger on what was going on. When I finally did, I understood that while my feelings were not universal among mothers, the reason I was having those feelings sprang from an issue that affects all mothers to some extent: The devaluation of motherhood.

Most of my fear of having children was rooted in the belief that society would treat me like I wasn’t relevant anymore. I’m not sure when exactly this message became solidified in my head, but I know women and girls receive it pretty constantly, though not always overtly.

Once during my pregnancy, when I told my boss that I’d like to line things up for when I returned from maternity leave, he responded, “Well, you may find that you just want to stay home”. Setting aside the assumption that I wouldn’t desire or be capable of continuing my work once I became a mother, even though I was explicitly stating that I would, I think it’s the word “just” that gets to the heart of the issue here.

Similarly, when a friend of mine got pregnant in graduate school, someone made the offhand comment that she’d “probably just want to stay home with her baby now”. There’s that “just” word again.

Our society doesn’t value caregivers. Make no mistake, they say they value caregivers, mothers in particular. There is no shortage of claims like, “Motherhood is the most important job in the world!” but those claims don’t often hold weight when it comes to actually valuing mothers and their work.

When we make calculations to assess the state of our economy, we don’t include the work of stay-at-home parents, essentially suggesting that they don’t do or produce anything of value to our society. Stay-at-home parents do not receive compensation, including retirement benefits like social security.

And it isn’t really parenthood that is undervalued, it’s motherhood. For women who work outside the home, we value them less overall if they become mothers. In the United States, on average, women already make less than men for doing the same job, but the gap grows larger for women who choose to have children, particularly for women in lower income brackets. What about men who become parents and work outside the home? For them, especially for higher-earning men, fatherhood results in a “wage bonus.

In the book “I’ll Show Myself Out” by Jessi Klein, she talks about the hero’s journey. More specifically, she talks about how a mother is never the character in the story of a hero’s journey, despite the incredible strength of will it sometimes takes to mother a child. She points out how, at least in American culture, motherhood is not a meaningful narrative. “What mothers do is seen as so unremarkable, it’s not just an unimportant story, but not even a story at all”.

And while I focused this piece on women, because ITAV is an organization for women, I do acknowledge that men encounter issues in this space, too. There are men who would rather work in the home and spend more time with their children, but society can be hard on them for making those decisions.

Society benefits heavily from the actions and sacrifices of good caregivers. From the actions and sacrifices of mothers. But while we as a society generally invest in the things and people that bring us great benefit, we fail to do so with caregivers.

So, what can we do about it? We can start at home, by displaying respect for care-giving and caregivers in front of our children, who will be the next generation shaping culture and policy. And now, while we’re the ones in charge of shaping, we can be deliberate in all spaces in the way we speak about care-giving and the way we treat caregivers, and we can push for policies that support caregivers and families.

Change is often a long and arduous process, but like Ryan Reynolds said in his Instagram anniversary post to Blake Lively (those two, lol): “The tender grit it takes to be a mother in 2021 is an act of pure strength and heroism”. We’re on a hero’s journey, ladies, and we’ve got grit.

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