Women’s History Month Must Stop Ignoring Mothering as Work

A Women’s History Month that only celebrates our productive work and not our reproductive work is dangerous and counterproductive.

By Kimberly Seals Allers 

Women’s History Month is an important time every year as we reflect on the many accomplishments of women and their contributions to our society. Now that’s over, it’s time to face a glaring omission so that its not repeated next year. This year, I was particularly concerned that the month’s over-focus on the secular and professional accomplishments of women brings an unintended consequence to undermine mothering, as  valuable work equally worthy of high fives, GIFs, reposting and tweeting. Women’s History Month is not complete unless women are being honored for their productive work and their reproductive work. 

That means acknowledging the work that women aren’t paid to do yet makes a significant contribution to society via infant health, childhood development, education and the general ongoing existence of the human race. Instead of celebrating mothering work as an important subset of work women do, we find it cut out of women’s celebrations and relegated to one day in May —which has become so overrun with commercial interests, it’s hard to see the true issue. 

This is a separating of women—of the different roles we play. Mother, wife, career person, lover, sister, daughter, friend. Instead of celebrating the complete woman, we are stuck parsing out the career woman —the women that broke barriers against men and putting the others selves aside for another time, another month. Given the history of the suppression of women, it is absolutely important to document and note the ways we have overcome those struggles, but what about the roles of women, that only women uniquely do? Only celebrating our accomplishments in fields dominated by men and ignoring the mothering work women uniquely do, feels decidedly anti-feminist. It would seem that a Women’s History Month worth its spot on the calendar would also do that. If we are celebrating women, let’s celebrate the whole person—and all the roles women play in their lives. 

Since about 80% of women become mothers in their lifetime, we should be talking about the structural inconsistencies such as a woman who devotes her time to the work of mothering cannot earn social security benefits for this time, whereas if she has a paying job, she and her day care earn credits toward financial security in old age. We should be talking about living in the only industrialized nation without a federal paid maternity leave, which does give women time to recover from birth and establish their maternal rhythms. 

The continued devaluation of mothering as important work is built on an outdated system based on the idea that families can afford for women not to work, yet mothers are underpaid and undermined for their secular work and their maternal work. 

The motherhood penalty known as the “maternal wall” has been found to be more of a problem than the glass ceiling. One study found that when subjects were given identical female resumes, with one being a mother, the mother was 79 percent less likely to be hired, 100 percent less likely to be promoted, offered an average of $110,000 less in salary and was held to higher performance and punctuality standards. 

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Historically, much of the feminism that began in the mid-mid-twentieth century focused on fighting for equal rights with men and freeing women from the imperative to mother. Important work. But in our quest to be viewed as equal to men we forgot to fight for the things that make us uniquely women—like our ability to birth and lactate. No one should be forced to mother, but women who choose that journey deserve policy, social and structural support. Otherwise, we are failing women. 

If women don’t value mothering as important work, who will? 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. Accomplishments can be noted. But value remains an abstract and often misunderstood notion. Our idea of value is based on what somebody is willing to pay for something and that leaves the modern valuation and celebration of mothering as valued work steeped in confusion. It is universally  accepted that no one should work for free except a mother, yet no one has enough money to hire a good mom, which, actually makes mothers priceless.

Being priceless and worthless at the same time is a terrible state of affairs. And the psychological impact of generations of undervalued mothers is hard to ignore. Many find a torrent of disappointment, fear, frustration and anger at the beginning of their mothering journey. Post-partum depression is on the rise. By some estimates it affects one in nine mothers in America. 

Last week’s announcement of a new FDA-approved postpartum drug is an important development. But instead of a $34,000 per treatment drug that requires 60 hours of in-hospital IV treatment, what about more support and validation for motherhood?  What if mothering was valued with paid family leave? Along with post-partum home visits as a standard practice of care and high-quality affordable child care. And what if, not viewing mothering as outside of the women’s experience worthy of celebrating, was a part of that support. When we are told that mothering doesn’t matter, the stress of being “productive” (because caring for yourself and your baby is not “work”) as a new mother is exhausting, overwhelming and anxiety-producing. 

We need a new social construct. One where mothering and caregiving is properly conceptualized as real work, rather than women being applauded for their career accomplishments and mothers being relegated to an overpriced brunch. We can end some of the isolation of motherhood and dangerous separation of women’s “selves” and it should start at Women’s History Month.  Next year, let’s do better. 

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