What is the Value of Motherhood?

by norealplot

Some thoughts for every parent facing the August back-to-school to-do list. Originally published in the Washington Post on July 10, 2015.


My young cousin just earned a Vanderbilt Masters degree in Accountancy and Valuation. He’s off to Wall Street to seek his fortune.

A Masters in Valuation. Revolutionary.

I’m deep in that season of the year when my time and attention (like any involved parent’s) are profoundly splintered and – face it – frittered away by the details of my children’s lives. With three young sons, the end of school was one long march of recitals (baked goods needed), class parties (more baked goods), teacher conferences, and convocations. Photo collage for the third-grade memory book. Cub Scout service project. All in under the wire.

Then, exam lock-down at home, where life is half Sound of Music, half Shawshank Redemption. And now, summer. I’ve filed the health forms and permission slips. I’ve sourced the shorts, sneakers, and required-reading books. Let’s state the obvious: school holidays are no holiday for parents.

Hold on. Did I really complain my time’s frittered away? As in squandered, misspent, dissipated, or (brace yourself) wasted?

It’s the central paradox of my life as a parent. I love the details of looking after my boys, the work of attending to every individual, granular job I can. I recognize it’s a privilege that I’m at home to do it myself, and I’m grateful for that every day. But at the same time, I’m horrified at the cumulative cost that detail work has imposed on my capacity to concentrate on – or to accomplish – much else. For years.

I’m not the only one. Writing in the New York Times, Judith Shulevin quotes sociologists who use the term “worry work” to describe the family role of managing “the nonroutine details of taking care of children – when they have to go to the doctor, when they need permission slips for school, paying attention at that level.” The parent who does most of that work is the “‘designated worrier,’ because you need large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all.” Shulevin writes, “whether a [parent] loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path.”

It’s death by a thousand bake sales.

Shulevin’s focus is gender disparity in how couples tend to share “worry work,” how in some families those details get dropped mostly on mothers because they’re less likely (or less empowered) to scorn them. That’s a problem, of course. But her op-ed got me thinking about something else. How would all the “designated worriers” feel if managing those everyday details of family life were highly, even extravagantly, valued?

I don’t mean valued as in Mother’s Day carnations or weepy graduation tributes, (though I’d hate to do without those). Appreciation at that level, however welcome and well-meaning, is ceremonial and largely symbolic. It’s abstract and scrubbed of any careful attention to the job’s grainy particulars, or the costs they exact.

In fact, I’ll go farther and make this bold, if preliminary, claim. I think the popular culture currently values family detail work in negative territory. I mean it’s valued at less than zero, especially when done by educated, once-professional but now un- or under-employed mothers. Think I’m crazy? Name another work-identified group you’re allowed to call derisive names, in print, as a matter of course. Helicopter Moms? Snowplow Moms? Tiger Moms? Believe me, they’re not compliments. And just try googling “Whiny SAHMs.” Prepare for a hot blast of shaming contempt.

We can do better. We need a serious, structural rethinking of what work counts in our culture, what work is worthy, and what work deserves widespread respect.

We need a new Masters in Valuation.

We’re used to backing into value judgments about work from the starting point of money. Work that makes money has presumptive value, so long as it’s legal. We might add conditions, like it must not exploit people, animals, or the environment. We might prefer it be non-profit (like charity fundraising). But even so, we tend to start from the basic presumption that work, and time, count more when someone pays you for them.

Maybe we could shoehorn the detail parent’s work into this transactional model, but I doubt that’s the answer. For one thing, I suspect few families ever price the market value of the time and attention a designated worrier invests unless they’re hiring a nanny to take over the job altogether. Truth is, most families couldn’t afford their own Worrier, if it came to that.

For another thing, how many of us really want those transactional values stamped onto the deep structure of our marriages and families? There’s a spectrum here. The monetized Mommy Blog might earn our grudging respect (“Wish I’d thought of ad revenue from stroller product placement!”). Yet we’re scandalized by the claim, from anthropologist Wednesday Martin in her new book Primates of New York, that certain “rich, powerful” men in Manhattan award their stay-at-home spouses a year-end cash “wife bonus” tied to the women’s performance on traditional motherly tasks, like making sure their kids get into “good” schools and then excel there. Readers cringe: Wife Bonus? Ewww.

How then to value our gritty family work, if not with money?

David Brooks raised my hopes last April in “The Moral Bucket List,” a New York Times op-ed adapted from his new book, The Road to Character. Brooks confesses his project “to work harder to save [his] own soul” by swapping “resume virtues” – “the skills you bring to the marketplace” – for “eulogy virtues,” those that let you “look after other people” while “not thinking about [yourself] at all.”

Eulogy virtues reject the “culture of the Big Me” and resist the lure of “money, status, security.” Instead, Brooks urges, the better soul seeks a life “embedded in a web of unconditional loves.” You’ll stop asking what you want from life. You’ll ask, instead, “How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

Sound familiar?

Has David Brooks – rock star pundit, celebrated author, and speaker-circuit luminary – just discovered . . . parenthood? Is this the revolution?

Well, yes and no. I’m glad he’s pushing the virtues of what he calls “the Small, Happy Life,” the life spent tending with great care to little jobs that benefit others. I’m glad he wants to “shift the conversation” and critique the “culture that focuses on external success.”

But it’s hardly a “eulogy” move – hardly a rejection of “the Big Me”– to hawk the modest, unself-centered virtues by selling a commercial book about them. Or by taking a victory lap around the highest-end, for-pay speaking gigs that New York, Washington, and the Aspen Institute can provide. Am I the only one wondering how he’ll find the time, between his TED talks and his TV appearances, to “listen well” and “look after others?”

Revolution? Not so much.

I’m back to square one. What’s a “designated worrier” really worth? How to claim meaningful value for our time and care – for our work – managing the gritty details of family life?

I have two ideas how to start, one big and one little.

First, the big: I propose we make Home Economics a serious, required high school course for both girls and boys. A graded course, teaching the skills and commitments essential to a functional adult life, inside a functional family. Taught by an esteemed academic teacher. With mandatory field work outside the classroom.

Want to signal that the culture should highly value the work of looking after others with care and commitment? Let Home Ec bump a teenager’s sixth AP course off his schedule, or claw back time from his travel sports team, or from his ACT-prep sessions.

Maybe if we stop teaching kids, institutionally, to value their own ambitious trajectory above all else, they’ll be more equipped when the time comes to honor the granular detail work of looking after others at home – whether they do it themselves, delegate it to a spouse, or outsource it to a paid employee. Home Ec for All, that’s a big idea. It’s a start.

Now, my little idea. Back at the end of school, while I was knee-deep in all those time-crushing details, something wonderful happened. A few days after I ran the Cub Scout service project – baking cookies for a local soup kitchen – I got a letter from the mother of one of my scouts. Handwritten on real stationery, in the real mail, with a stamp, she thanked me for making the project happen, for the planning and the buying, and the pre-mixing and the packaging and the crowd control on the Sunday afternoon when all those little boys jammed into my kitchen to bake. She didn’t shoot me an e-mail, or grab me in carline, or wave across the playground on teacher conference day. She didn’t text me “thx!!” She sat down, thought about all those small, gritty details, and thanked me with care and attention.

It made my day, for days.

So for the first assignment, towards our new Masters of Valuation, I propose we all follow that mother’s example. Sit down quietly, think hard about a job someone else has done to benefit you or someone you love. The smaller the job, the better. Take time to consider all the details that person managed in order to make the job happen. Weigh what you would have had to put aside to do the job yourself. And then write a letter, on paper, saying thank you. Yes, thank you: we needed that.


Laura Fitzgerald Cooper lives in Nashville with her husband and three sons. She was a professor of public constitutional law at Washington and Lee University before retiring to spend time with her boys. Follow her blog at No Real Plot.