At a dinner party a few weeks ago I found myself in the kitchen with my mother-in-law and an old friend of my husband’s family. The old friend had recently been quite ill, and was talking to me about how lucky he’s been throughout both his illness and his life to have had the support of a wife who makes him dinner literally every night.
I should at this point mention that the wife in question is one of those brainy, opinionated, highly disciplined women who have populated Berkeley since the 1960s. The type for whom feminism is a given. Who embraced whole grains and kale way before they came trendy. And who has for decades biked everywhere because she simply can’t support the politics of fossil fuels.
So I was a little surprised by the traditional gender roles in their household.
The friend then went on to ask about my work, and how I balance it with the needs of the family.
“I do work,” I said. “And I really love maintaining the professional side of my life. But really my main job is being a mom.”
It was at this point that my mother-in-law chimed in.
“And you’re an amazing mother!” she called out, rushing over from the stove to give me a hug.
Now it should be said that my mother-in-law also falls into the “brainy, opinionated, highly disciplined” woman category described above. She came to Berkeley in the ’60s, eats like a monk doing a 30-day cleanse, and while she doesn’t cycle, still commutes almost daily to the progressive charter school in Oakland she’s been with for decades that literally changes lives.
It was an absolutely lovely thing for my mother-in-law to say.
Why, then, did it make me feel like such a nobody?
I’m no anthropologist and won’t attempt to give an academic argument here, but you don’t have to possess much intellectual or emotional intelligence to recognize the way our culture devalues moms. We’ve been blamed for most every one of our children’s poor outcomes, from neuroses to obesity, cancer to autism. A mother who doesn’t make sure her baby’s bottle is BPA free is neglectful. The one who asks her child to finish her math homework before going to the neighbor’s house to play is a tiger mom. And the one who has a glass of wine while she’s eight months pregnant is downright abusive.
Even my beloved Jane Austen, champion of women’s rights in so many prescient ways, took a dig at moms, casting Pride & Prejudice’s Mrs. Benet, who had legitimate concerns about securing well-off husbands for her many daughters, as a graceless social climber in desperate wont of manners.
Would some kind of compensation make up for all the haters? Salary.com claims that the average stay-at-home mom should be making upwards of $118,000 a year. Money.com took issue with Salary.com’s $118,000 number and wrote a full article about why they feel the number should be closer to $65,000.
Mind you, we’re not paid anything for our mothering services, but Money.com can’t seem to resist the need to low-ball us anyway.
Several northern European countries and even Canada have proposed paying their adult citizens a universal basic income. Finland’s would be about $870 per month, which falls far short of the $118,000/year benchmark but would be a boon nonetheless for women who have historically done the heavy lifting of householding for free.
(The money would be paid to both men and women, it’s true, but as stay-at-home dads are still in the minority, women are likely to benefit more from it.)
Some argue that stay-at-home moms are really just glorified hobbyists who get a free ride, but others counter that it is really society that has gotten a free ride as mothers have attended to so much nurturing for free. When you think of it that way, mothers’ value to society is huge: Not only does our work benefit the well-being of immediate family members but also helps produce well-adjusted, high-functioning adults who will contribute heartily to society.
I’m not sure you can even put a price on that.
As I see it, motherhood is an essentially quiet endeavor. It’s about listening to my daughter describe a schoolyard misunderstanding while chopping carrots for dinner, offering more by presence than word. It’s about showing up on time to pick her up from school, day after day after day and in all kinds of moods and weather, to cast the long of arms of protection and trust over her still-youthful experience of the world. And it’s about having a raft of unglamorous Band-Aids and napkins wadded into my purse, ready to mend minor wounds or mop up unexpected spills.
These things don’t make me a more special or skilled mother than any other and aren’t designed to do so. They’re meant only for an audience of one: my daughter. To show her that she matters — to me at the very least — and to give her a stable place from which to grow and figure things out.
When thought of this way, motherhood really is a kind of selflessness, a ceding of me so that someone else can thrive (not every time, and not always, but often enough). Is it any wonder that this feels like a kind of loss?
To compensate for this loss, I look not for outward recognition, but turn rather to the restorative salve of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who must have dearly loved her mother.
I had not read Wilder’s multi-volume story since my own childhood but recently read it to my daughter. While I was shocked to hear of Ma’s abject racism against Native Americans (“I just don’t like Indians, Laura,” she says in Little House on the Prairie), I was very touched by the author’s portrayal of her mother’s way of keeping house in Little House in the Big Woods.
Several chapters close with the author remembering the experience of drifting off to sleep in the well-kept cabin, the place “snug and warm,” her mother sitting prettily by the fire in her best calico, everyone secure in the knowledge that the animals were safe for the night, the pantry well-stocked for winter, and that all the right moral lessons of life and living had been learned that day.
My family doesn’t live in a cabin and our pantry is stocked from selections found at the local market, but Wilder’s essential feeling of reverence and respect for her mother is the kind of recognition that turns that feeling of being a nobody into something else entirely.
Not of being a celebrity or an entrepreneur, a politician or sports star, but a mom.
Maybe even a good one.