What’s a Mother’s Work Worth to You?

Here’s one of those stories that tells you what the work you’re doing at home would be paid if you had to hire someone else to do it. The work done was based on time-use reports by 28,000 moms. This is presumably supposed to tell us something about the value of this work, but it’s a pretty shifty business.

Stay-at-home moms by this account would get $117,856, and moms with outside jobs would earn $71,860 above their regular salary. Overtime is a big factor in these calculations — so if you were looking to save on your equivalent (the cost of having someone else do it), you’d just hire two people to split the jobs and the salary would drop substantially.

If you have kids, is this kind of report consoling or depressing to you? And why?

If you’re thinking about kids, how does this kind of report affect your thought process?

Do the big numbers emphasize the big value of mom’s work, or do they emphasize the long hours and the amount she’s actually underpaid? Does it seem like a rigorously defined data point, or a dubious exercise to begin with, underlining the big disparities in pay scales in the real world for people who work in care industries and those in the “professional” world where this kind of salary actually gets paid.

The assumption seems to be that you would hire someone from the big economy to do the jobs — but the evidence is that a middle class woman could easily hire another woman (or two) for much less than this to take over the majority of her functions, and many people do. The poor are always with “us” — because “we” hire them at reduced wages. They’re in the kitchen, the nursery, and the garden, and in equivalent “unskilled” positions around town.

Of course a big part of the job of mothering is about what someone else couldn’t or wouldn’t do–that special extra value that “only a mother” can add. And specifically about evading the paid economy. If cash payment was required, a lot of this work wouldn’t get done, because few people could afford it. Family is another word for venture capital, of both monetary and non-monetary kinds. For lots of reasons, some economic, some sentimental, motherhood as we know it is all about NOT getting paid.

These salary numbers remind me of the ads that invite you to save huge amounts on things you don’t need by buying now, to which you respond with your own calculation about how much more you’re saving by not buying at all. There’s something wrong with the premise here too, to do with the fact that incommensurate systems of valuation are being linked here (paid work vs. unpaid; men’s pay scale vs women’s pay scale), but we’re pretending they’re commensurate.

Instead of estimating the value of a mother’s work in terms completely foreign to the reality of what real moms or their surrogates in the world of housework are paid, better to work toward fixing the field within which these values are determined. We could start by improving moms’ real ability to work for a fair wage and to not lose ground on pay scale when they have kids, whether or not they step out to care for them for a while. Likewise, the lack of a national system of decent, affordable childcare — available to about 10% of workers today –is a big part of why many people stay home actively NOT earning $117,856. Pay equity. Childcare. Those are the values that would make a real difference to many moms today.

Pay equity for female workers would offer more options to families of all classes (with one parent or with two) to choose how they want to structure their workloads and their care arrangements, especially if good childcare, part time or full time, wasn’t so expensive.

A national childcare program could involve some compensation for moms who decide to stay at home with their kids (think “child allowance”). Kids are, after all, not just their private indulgences but the nation’s future citizens, and worth some national investment.

Bottom line: we need more upfront discussion of the real-world economics of childrearing and of women’s work than fantasy numbers like $117K invite.

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