Valuing the work of mothers

Like many well-educated and successful women of her generation, Ann Crittenden assumed she would always work. As a reporter for Fortune, Newsweek, and The New York Times, she enjoyed a stimulating and satisfying career. But then she became a mother, and everything changed.

"I just fell madly in love with my baby," Ms. Crittenden says in a telephone interview from her home in Washington. "I could not imagine going back to a demanding, more-than-full-time job."

So she resigned. Yet, in trading a title and a paycheck for parenthood, she found herself unprepared both for the economic penalties and for the loss of professional identity. One man she met at a party, remembering her byline, even asked her, "Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?"

Although the two laughed about his comment, she found it "an amazing metaphor for the invisibility of the mother." It confirmed her feeling that she had "shed status like the skin off a snake."

It also left her determined to examine the penalties women pay for raising a family. The result of her six-year project is "The Price of Motherhood: Why Motherhood is the Most Important - and Least Valued - Job in America" (Holt, $25).

Crittenden, a passionate advocate for mothers, calls unpaid female labor "the priceless, invisible heart of the economy." She laments a culture that considers child-rearing "unskilled labor."

At the heart of her concern is what she calls the "mommy tax," the money women lose by leaving the workplace. (Men pay a similar "daddy tax" when they become children's primary caregivers.) Far from merely depriving women and their families of extras, their lost income, Crittenden discovered, adds up to staggering amounts over a lifetime - as much as $1 million in lost wages, savings, Social Security, and pensions for college-educated mothers.

This "mommy tax," Crittenden argues, makes motherhood "the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age." When no value is placed on the work women do at home, she warns, they become especially vulnerable if they are divorced or widowed.

Crittenden traces the devaluation of women's work back to the 19th century. As men gradually began to work for wages, women's family "work" at home became sentimentalized as a "labor of love."

Today that "labor of love" gets couched in talk about family values - rhetoric Crittenden calls "pure lip service." She adds, "It's easy to say we value the family. But what kind of value is placed on it? The answer always is, 'Doing well by your child is its own reward.' "

She finds much truth in that statement, saying, "There's nothing like seeing your child happy."

At the same time, in a society that glorifies paid work, gaining real recognition for mothers' unpaid labor remains "the great unfinished business of the women's movement." She criticizes feminist groups for their silence on issues such as paid maternity leave and subsidized child care.

Despite 20 years of public discussion about work and family issues, Crittenden finds that silence still shrouds the work done within the family itself. "There's plenty of serious, hard, challenging work going on in the family that we don't even recognize. We ought to look at that."

Arguing that altruism can be exploited, she pleads for fairness. She also calls for a change in attitudes and policies that penalize unpaid caregivers.

Crittenden's solutions fall into two categories: changes that could realistically be accomplished now and those that belong under the heading of "big dream" ideas.

In the "doable" category, she suggests giving Social Security credits for unpaid work in the home. "Why do nannies get Social Security credits and mothers don't?" she asks.

A second proposal involves eliminating the marriage tax. "If we're talking about tax cuts, somebody ought to get up there and talk about the taxes on mothers," Crittenden says. Because married couples file jointly, the second income is taxed at the highest rate.

She wants couples to file separately, as they do in Sweden and other democracies. That was the policy in the United States until 1948. "We quit doing it about the time there was this big push to get women back in the home."

Companies, she says, could provide equal pay and benefits for equal part-time work. She also calls for more community support for parents.

In her "big dream" category, Crittenden includes universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds. This, she concedes, "will cost a lot of money."

So would another proposal - encouraging employers to give parents a year's paid leave. Crittenden also suggests shortening the workweek. In France, it stands at 35 hours.

Crittenden is not the only economist concerned about the high and often hidden costs of caregiving. This spring Nancy Folbre, an economist and MacArthur Fellow, will publish "The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values" (The New Press).

Crittenden, whose son is now 18, does see progress since she left the workplace and discovered that she was regarded as a "used-to-be."

"You never hear 'I'm just a housewife' anymore," she says. "Women say, 'I'm a mother,' and they say it with more pride. They don't apologize, but there's still a defensiveness. They still say, 'I can't put it on my resume.' And employers still say, 'What did you do?'"

Even so, Crittenden finds parents at home enjoying greater respect and higher stature today. "We're going in the right direction," she says. "We just don't put our money where our mouth is yet."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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