management parenting

Free but not cheap

Jessica Valenti just wrote a new book called Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness, and wrote a piece for Babble summarizing her main argument in the book, which is that we keep saying “Motherhood is the most important job in the world,” but at the same time we undervalue it enormously. She buries what I think is the most important point in the last paragraph of the Babble piece, which is that motherhood isn’t a job, it’s a relationship.

If we think it’s a job, then nothing makes sense about it. How is it possible that it’s so important but also so undervalued? How is it possible to be a good mother if you’re with your kids 24/7 but also be a good mother if you leave them to go work for a good part of the day? How can we take such satisfaction from being with our kids but be so bored by all the stuff we have to do for our kids?

But motherhood makes sense when you realize that it’s a relationship. Loving and nurturing your child is the relationship you have with your child. That’s why when you have a bad day as an adult, you still want your mom (if you have a good relationship with your mom) even though she isn’t making your meals, changing your clothes for you, driving you to work, or doing any of the stuff moms of kids do.

All the stuff that has to be done for kids, though, those things are jobs. 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. 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.

What we were talking about last week in the discussion of how motherhood changes who we are, and what Randi Buckley helps women figure out in her Maybe Baby program, is this: Do you want the relationship enough to suffer through the jobs?

And that’s not a small question. The jobs almost break some of us. The jobs almost break almost all of us with kids under 3. And how you come through the jobs as your children age and the jobs change is not guaranteed, and it’s different for everyone.

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.

But we do need to make sure that the jobs associated with raising children are valued, financially and socially. We need protections for SAH parents. Protections and better wages for paid caregivers. And respect for everyone who does the jobs of raising children. It’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but doing the jobs of raising children (I was a stay-at-home mom for 5 years) was the most intense sustained thing I have ever done. It makes me exhausted and sad just thinking about some of those periods of unending work, and I hear the exhaustion and overwork from you–especially those of you with little kids–and the suck of the intensity.

But the relationship… That’s why old ladies come up to us when we’re half dead with a 6-week-old strapped to our lopsided leaky chests as we’re waddling into the drugstore at 7 am to buy more diapers and say, “Enjoy this time!” They don’t remember the jobs. They don’t know it, but what they really mean is “Enjoy this person, this relationship that you’re starting and that’s only going to get better but also more complicated, and this love that will make you hurt and make you vibrate with the rest of the universe. Your boobs will stop leaking and diapers are only for a short time and you will survive, but this relationship is your chance to be better than just yourself.”

That’s what those old ladies mean. And why they can’t stop themselves from saying things to stressed-out strangers. Seeing us with teeny babies and a new relationship makes them think of their own children, their own relationships. And they want that same thing for us.

So. The jobs, well, they never end, so you get a million chances to screw up or to dominate. And if you have the chance to do the jobs you want to do, whether they’re kid-raising jobs or some other jobs, you should do them. Don’t feel guilty about making the best choice for you. But at the same time, we all have to fight like hell so that we can all have the choice to do the jobs that we want to do and are best suited for. Because if we’re doing things that make us feel useful and fulfilled, the relationship becomes free and unburdened. The intensity without the grind. And we–and our children–deserve that.

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