Who Does the Homemaking?

Why caring labor in America is a steal!

Posted Sep 04, 2011

The unseen value of homemaking labor

Labor Day calls for a tribute to one work force cut out of our nation's economic history: the job of raising children. The unpaid work of mothers is what Ann Crittenden calls the "dark matter" of our economy. Women's work in the home is romanticized as a labor of love, its economic importance swept under the rug. Economists who include homemaking in the GDP have been called "potty chair" economists. How did the most important job in the world get trivialized?

America's economic history also tells a path of familial change. Preindustrial society of the 17th century was characterized by artisanship and a limited division of labor. Wives and daughters worked alongside husbands, brothers, and fathers in a cooperative agricultural economy. Women often managed dairy production, milked cows and goats, churned butter, spun cloth and contributed to the family economy through many of the same tasks as today: child-rearing, teaching, homemaking.

The word "economy" comes from Greek oikonomia, meaning "one who manages a household." The current usage of the word as it applies to a country or large geographical area emerged with the rise of industry.

When Henry Ford developed the assembly line for the Ford Model T (1908-1915) mass production replaced individual handycrafting. Men dominated the new labor market. Women and children took lower paying jobs or remained at home. The Industrial Revolution altered women's role in the family, and the family itself, by undermining the economic importance of domestic work. It emphasized individual wages over familial earnings and competitive self-interest over collective sensibility. More than ever, money was the measure of productivity and it was given mostly to men -- who worked for a master rather than himself.

In the 1930's, the GNP (later renamed GDP) became the scoreboard of capitalism that counts everything bought and sold. As Crittenden says, this standard of measure neglects the value of nonmonetary transactions such as homeschooling or doing the household laundry (but if you paid someone else to do either task, it would count).  The GDP omits other intangibles like a clean water supply, advancements in surgical techniques, the familial care provided to the elderly or a mother's long-term efforts at building human character and emotional intelligence.

The economic devaluation of motherhood went hand in hand with the exalted myth of woman and home. A good wife and mother was selflessly devoted to her children and husband, her domestic activities romanticized as a labor of love. This ideal of femininity was popularized through the image of the "angel of the hearth," inspired by Coventry Patmore's narrative poem "The Angel in the House," wildly popular during the late 19th-20th century. Later Virginia Woolf satirized this Victorian ideal of womanhood, writing that this fabled wife "sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it... [She] bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her." Thirty years later, Jonatha Brooke, a descendent of Woolf's, grappled with this image of sweet domesticity in her lyrics for a feminist rock album bearing the same title as Patmore's poem: 

My mother moved the furniture when she no longer moved the man
We thought nothing of it at the time
She painted walls, painted smiles
Checked herself in the mirror one more time
Then yoked her heart to a whim

In 1991, a 46-year-old housewife and mother of three protested the "hearth" and debunked its "angelic" associations when she challenged the Canadian Census handed to her at the front door. Although threatened with jail, Carol Lees refused to complete the form because the question "number of hours worked in the last week" excluded a homemaker's domestic labor and she would have to put zero. Her actions galvanized a national campaign legitimizing homemaker's work as productive, a collective effort aptly captured in a headline from the Chicago Tribune: "Housewife Makes Canada Come To Its Census."

Lees was a major player in the movement to value caring for the young, elderly and disabled. Women still spend more time providing unpaid caregiving than men, but sharing this responsibility is one route to more equality. There is a heavy financial penalty for anyone who chooses to stay home and take care of kids. This so-called "mommie tax" represents big opportunity costs or the loss of substantial lifetime income through forfeited upward mobility in the job market. Domestic nurturers have different career patterns than traditional males and childless women and frequently have a hard time finding a work-family balance or returning to their job after being at home. As Crittenden notes, asking your employer for a flexible work schedule for child-rearing can be like committing "career hara-kiri." Poverty is highest among women and children in all racial and ethnic groups, and motherhood is one of the leading risk factors. 

Who should be responsible for the familial care of children and seniors, and how should this work be valued? What are the methods of assessing it in quantitative terms? What future social policies should our government develop toward this purpose, whether in the form of child benefits, extended maternity leave (as in France and Sweden), tax advantages, Social Security points or public policies of some other kind?

The Mother's Movement sheds light on a blind spot in modern economic thought where what counts is solely the production and sale of commodities and services for the market. Also it suggests we search for ways in which altruism rather than, or in addition to, self-interest propels economic growth.

The devaluation of child-rearing labor makes the U.S. a country at war with itself. Bringing up kids well is the heart of our economy and key to our nation's prosperity, but caregivers are discouraged from performing the very tasks essential to a healthy society. Psychohistorians, or those who study history through a psychological lens, often draw a definitive connection between childhood trauma and societal traumas. We need better understanding of how a caregiver's activities contribute to our national, indeed global, well-being. Why should child-rearing take second place to market exchange when "human capital" -- peoples' skills, knowledge, personality attributes, enterprise and creativity -- is the greatest asset we have? Where does it come from and what's it worth?



Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued. Picador, 2001.

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