What is the value of motherhood?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In our society, items are priced but value remains an abstract and often misunderstood concept. When it comes to breastfeeding, the valuations get even trickier. Our idea of value is based on what somebody is willing to pay for something, and that leaves the modern valuation of breastfeeding steeped in confusion. There is the actual cost of breastfeeding-related products and then there is the priceless value of the preventive health benefits and the monetary value of the time it takes a mother to provide it. How we value the huge time commitment for breastfeeding is directly related to the broader issue of valuing mothering in general.

As a society, we talk endlessly about the importance of family, yet the time and work it takes to nurture and manage a family is utterly disregarded. Pressed for time and money, unable to find decent affordable day care, racked with guilt at falling short of the mythic supermom ideal—working and nonworking American mothers alike have it harder today than they have in decades, and they are worse off by almost every measure than many of their peers around the world. Capitalist models would tell you that when you “corner the market” on a certain product or service, then by definition your value should increase—but the exact opposite has occurred for women, who have been actually devalued by their ability to bear children and exclusively feed them. Witness the ever-persistent gender gap. Women are paid 23 percent less than men even when we are doing the exact same work as a man. So how could we be properly valued for doing work, such as birthing and breastfeeding, that men cannot do? It is universally accepted that no one would work for free except mothers, yet no one has enough money to hire a good mom, which, in that framework, actually makes mothers priceless. This does not include Mother’s Day—when the commercial interest in celebrating mothers reaches a fever pitch. Beyond that, mothering is mostly considered thankless work. In some places, it can even be a penalty. A 2008 study documented the motherhood penalty showing that the bias toward mothers, the so-called “maternal wall,” is more of a problem than the glass ceiling is for all women. The study found that when female subjects were given identical resumes, one but not the other a mother, the mother was 79 percent less likely to be hired, 100 percent less likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards. Mothers are under stress coping with an outdated system built around the idea that families can afford for women not to work, yet mothers are being underpaid and undermined for their secular work and their maternal work. The contradictions are complex. So are the implications. The psychological impact of generations of undervalued mothers is hard to ignore.

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Excerpted from The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) by Kimberly Seals Allers

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