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Hearts of gold

The Price of Motherhood:
Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued

By Ann Crittenden
Owl Books, 2001

Review by Serene Williams

In the last few months, our culture has been inundated with pseudo-feminist books and their authors taking sides in the so-called "mommy wars." While mothers tend to relish the fact that the struggles women face while raising children have received any attention at all, it is unfortunate that most of the focus has come from writers hell-bent on creating divisions between women rather than encouraging them to support each other for their different choices. With media discussion of motherhood at an all time high, it's the perfect time to revisit Ann Crittenden's brilliant and very readable book on the economics of caregiving. Celebrating its fifth anniversary, The Price of Motherhood is the most articulate book in a generation as to how our society should honor, instead of marginalize, mothers, and should be required reading for all feminists, parents, and policymakers.

There is no better authority to write a book of this kind than Ann Crittenden. She has been both a professional writer for The New York Times as well as a stay at home mother. While employed full time and before she had children, Crittenden admits she would look down on unemployed homemakers, thinking, "Why aren't they making something of themselves?  What's wrong with them? They're letting our side down" She admits now that it is exactly this type of attitude that has allowed mothers to be so poorly regarded. Following the birth of her child, however, she began to see things differently. She quit her demanding full time job in exchange for taking care of her child and freelancing on the side. Countless numbers of mothers can relate to her experiences when she writes,

I'll never forget a dinner at the end of the day in which I had gotten my son dressed and fed and off to nursery school, dealt with a plumber about a leaky shower, paid the bills, finished an op-ed piece, picked and escorted my son to a reading group at the library, run several miscellaneous errands, and put in an hour on a future book project. Over drinks that evening, a childless female friend commented that "of all the couples we know, you're the only wife who doesn't work"

This comment no doubt helped Crittenden see the need for a book such as this, and ironically, mothers have this insensitive comment to thank for the outpouring of good ideas that followed this bothersome interchange.

As the title suggests, The Price of Motherhood calls attention to the high price women pay as a result of motherhood. Instead of blaming the mother for these problems, as many "mommy war" books have done, Crittenden instead argues the perpetual lack of respect for motherhood is a result of our flawed society, not a result of failed feminist achievements or because of the choices mothers made. Crittenden emphasizes that the sacrifices mothers make are difficult enough, and that we do not need the extra burden placed upon us by the media or other sources. Also, contrary to what the media would have you think, Crittenden emphasizes a point familiar to many feminists; that motherhood is consistent with, rather than at odds against, feminist principles.

Among the many fascinating and unexpected issues Ann Crittenden addresses throughout her book are the parallels between mothers and soldiers. She points out that after World War II soldiers were thanked for their service through the G.I. Bill. She asks where is a G.I. Bill for mothers?  Crittenden proves the work mothers do is just as beneficial to our society as the work of our soldiers. "It hardly needs to be said that there is no G.I. Bill, no health care, no subsidized housing, and no job preferences for mothers. As things now stand, millions of women sacrifice their economic independence and risk economic disaster for the sake of raising a child. This says a lot about family values, the nation's priorities and free riding." The idea that women would be given benefits from our government that have been given to our soldiers is unthinkable. This is precisely the problem, she writes. It is hard to imagine a politician presenting radical ideas such as job opportunities, social security rights and government funded financial aid for higher education for mothers. Such a proposal would be laughed right out of the halls of congress, much to the detriment of mothers and our society as a whole.

The Price of Motherhood routinely emphasizes that our economic system depends upon women's caregiving, particularly for the unpaid and invisible work of child-rearing and housekeeping. In this way, she compels us to change how homemaking has traditionally been viewed. While most would consider homemakers as dependents, Crittenden proves homemakers are essential to the economic and political success of our country and its inhabitants. She also emphasizes the contributions of the large number of educated women who have chosen to stay home and raise children. "The college-educated stay-at-home mother is a fixture in American business and professional circles. With sixty-plus-hour work weeks the norm at the higher levels of the economy, a full-time 'wife' is often the only thing that makes family life possible. A survey of chief financial officers in American corporations found that 80 percent were men with stay-at-home wives." Crittenden shows us what we already should understand and appreciate; mothers are making corporate life possible and are an essential source of support for their professionally successful husbands. As a result, she argues, they deserve social and financial recognition for their contributions.

Crittenden's most persuasive argument throughout the course of her book highlights the schizophrenic view of motherhood so prevalent in the United States. Her subtitle for the book read, "Why the most important job in the world is still the least valued." For example, you can ask nearly any person at any time if mothers are important to our society and they will undoubtedly say yes, they are our most important contributors. But when you look at the obstacles women face once they become mothers, whether it is a lack of paid leave, work weeks devoid of flexibility, incomplete health care coverage for children or lack of respect for stay at home mothers, you can see our country does not truly value its caregivers. Crittenden writes, "…the United States is a society at war with itself. The policies of American business, government, and the law do not reflect Americans' stated values. Across the board, individuals who assume the role of nurturer are punished and discouraged from performing the very tasks that everyone agrees are essential. We talk endlessly about the importance of family, yet the work it takes to make a family is utterly disregarded." In addition, she points out that a society cannot claim to care about family values when motherhood is the single most important factor for poverty in old age.

Toward the end of her book, Crittenden lists a number of very plausible solutions to solve the major problems in our society with regards to motherhood. Her suggestions are realistic and many could be implemented in the immediate future. Some of her suggestions include: Give every parent the right to a year's paid leave (she notes that doctors universally recommend breastfeeding for the first year of life, yet women are only offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave following the birth of a child!), provide equal pay and benefits for equal part-time work, equalize social security for spouses, provide universal pre-school for three and four year olds, and add unpaid household labor to the GDP.

It may seem as though the last proposal is frivolous and unnecessary. However, when we think of how the hard work women put into rearing their children is not even formally recognized as actual "work," it becomes obvious that this is part of the reason caregiving lacks respect. Crittenden tells a story in an earlier section of her book that helps put this last proposal into perspective. "I once heard Marilyn Waring, New Zealand activist and the world's foremost advocate of putting unpaid work in the GDP, give a speech in which she asked the audience what kind of system would count a soldier sitting eight hours a day in a missile silo as usefully employed, but consider a mother taking care of two preschoolers 'unoccupied.' The answer was obvious: a system that devalues women." It is precisely this type of system that the United States has to this day. Our economic system devalues women and their work and will continue to do so until we put a stop to it.

Taking these ideas to heart, there are things all of us can do to improve the plight of mothers in this country. In the long term, we can look to the upcoming congressional midterm elections approaching this November, and demand our legislatures pass legislation that is truly family friendly. If they do not, it is up to us to vote them out of office, holding them accountable for their lack of respect for our nation's families.  It is time for lawmakers to prove this nation cares for those who are caregivers. Activist groups such as NOW, Moms Rising and MOTHERS, which was founded by Ann Crittenden, are gaining momentum and putting pressure on our legislators to pass family friendly legislation the media to call an end to the mommy wars.

In the short term, with Mother's Day here, buying this book for your mother and thanking her for all she has sacrificed for you could be the perfect present. As Ann Crittenden shows in The Price of Motherhood, our nation has failed to honor all women, but particularly those who are mothers. It is possible to change that lack of respect and to get a better deal for mothers. If we all make a greater effort to respect our own mothers for their contributions, financial compensation and social security benefits for mothers and mothering recognized as true work, cannot be far behind.

Dedicated to Nancie Bennett, my mother.

Mmo : may 2006

Serene Williams has a Masters degree in political science. Prior to her daughter's birth, she was head of the history department at Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco. She lives in San Mateo, California with her husband and one year-old daughter.

Also on the MMO:

An interview with Ann Crittenden
May 2006

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