As Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out earlier this week in Salon, people periodically refer, patronizingly, to motherhood as "the world's toughest job." It is work, notwithstanding the tiresome and misleading query of a mother "do you work?" But it is not a job, the world's toughest or otherwise, as Williams explains:
Let me break it to you gently, everybody. I don’t have the “World’s Toughest Job.” Aside from the fact that I harbor no illusions that what I do in raising my children is more difficult than, say, defusing IEDs or putting out oil fires or finding cures for cancer or being a sweatshop factory worker, I also don’t consider motherhood my job. I have a career, one that’s satisfying and challenging and for which I get paid. But being a mother isn’t a job any more than being a spouse or a daughter or a friend or, let’s not fail to mention here, a father is. Oh, it’s work, make no mistake, physically and emotionally demanding work. Work that many of us chose and love. But it isn’t a job and it sure as hell isn’t on a higher moral plane than many other forms of work.
Yet the “world’s greatest/hardest” routine is a common heart-tugging trope. During the 2012 Olympics, P&G ran a similarly themed campaign, though at least it tried the somewhat more upbeat message that “The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world.” But wrapped up in this seemingly tear-jerking message of appreciation are a lot of thoroughly messed-up ideas. Saying that motherhood is the “world’s toughest job” asserts that what mothers do is basically thankless and that they “kinda give life up” to do it. But wait! It’s also the most important and wonderful thing a woman can do. It’s terrible! It’s “inhumane”! But also noble!
The fact that I have had and am raising children is not a résumé item. It’s not something I “gave up” my life for. It’s sure as hell not a competitive act, one in which I somehow get to beat out every person who isn’t female or doesn’t have kids for best and most. And I don’t appreciate messages that seem to build women up while essentially telling them that nothing they can achieve in life matters more than having babies. You want to thank women, want to show women they have value? Close the wage gap. Challenge the insidious rape culture that exists in the military and in our colleges. Join the fight for our reproductive rights, so we can decide when and if we choose motherhood, safely. Don’t pat us on the head and minimize our contributions outside of the domestic sphere. You think motherhood is thankless, hard work? So is feminism. How about you celebrate that?
Were motherhood a job it would, as Williams notes, more often appear as a resume item. It would be something always freely chosen and never forced upon a woman, such as by an unplanned pregnancy. Instead, women are considered invaluable- but only if they have children, at which point they are placed on a higher moral plane than other workers (celebrated many years ago by Tom Paxton, below).
While the work of motherhood is misunderstood as a job, millions of people hold employment devalued with stagnant wages, benefit reductions, and expectations of working off the clock or foregoing vacations. Addressing those issues is the best way to honor women, whether they've chosen to be mothers or not.