In defence of bringing home no bacon

Over the past couple of months I’ve been reading a lot about multi-level marketing schemes (which isn’t really germane to this post, but if you’re interested in that particular rabbit-hole you could start here or here or here or here). One reddit thread I was reading asked the question of what personally brought people to the anti-MLM movement, and one of the discussions it sparked was in relation to the way these companies seem to particularly target stay-at-home mothers. Here’s a little snippet of conversation:

Q: What made you personally hate MLMs?

Person 1: The working mom shaming. I have a full time job, my husband WAH with the kids. It works for us, really well. I don’t need someone telling me I’m less of a mom because I work.

Person 2: I will never understand why moms are so hard on each other!

Person 3: Because they’ve convinced themselves that being a stay at home mother is the hardest job in the world and can’t stand working mothers being able to balance working and raising a child.

Hmm. Do you hear the contempt in response number three?

I am a stay-at-home mother. I don’t think what I do is “the hardest thing in the world” — I’m not jumping out of helicopters or working oil rigs or brokering billion-dollar deals — but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. All jobs have their own particular challenges and difficulties (and rewards) and I don’t think it serves anyone well to start comparing them too vigorously. Being the parent at home is hard in some ways. Being the working parent is hard in others. (I’ve been at home since my kids were born, but I worked as a nanny for several years and so I have seen both sides of this.) I’m not interested in debating which is “harder” because, really, it’s apples and oranges.

But I do think that the response quoted above is telling. I think a lot of SAHMs are quick to defend the difficulties of being at home with little children (isolation and loneliness, boredom, the fears that come with being dependent, and others) because the broader world is often so quick to behave as if those real difficulties are widely exaggerated, if not downright imaginary.

Why is this? I think a large part of it is that at this current point in Western culture, children have little to no value — and so neither do those who care for them, in which category I include not just parents, but nannies, daycare workers, teachers, etc. But I think it is especially acute for those who have left the workforce in order to care for children. I don’t generate any income for our family; we rely on my husband’s salary. And in the eyes of many, that makes my contribution to our family life if not exactly worthless, then certainly worth less. My economic power is wholly derived from someone else’s labour. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? If what I’m doing isn’t bringing home income or stimulating the economy — what, then, can it possibly be worth?

Back home in the Great White North, the federal government just passed a budget bill that seems to be asking the same questions — although their answer is different than mine would be. The major focus of the budget, it seems, was rectifying gender inequality in the working world:

In the federal Liberals’ first budget, in 2016, the word “gender” appeared twice. This time around, “gender” was used 358 times. As expected, gender equality was a major theme of the 2018 federal budget, such that “every single decision on expenditure and tax measures was informed” by a gender-based analysis, according to the government. (source)

But what sort of measures do we find in this budget? Almost exclusively, ways to get mothers out of the home and back to work, as soon as possible. Because if a woman is not contributing to the GDP, she’s not contributing to society, either — and despite this budget being hailed as a feminist interest, it seems particularly unfeminist to assume that women (and men) stay home with children not because it’s an informed choice they deem best for their family but because they are somehow being, I don’t know, economically oppressed into doing it. What is the value of a parent — and specifically a mother — in the home? Not much, apparently.

In her commentary in the National Post, Andrea Mrozek says it with more elegance than I:

This policy track couches a desperate need for GDP growth as women’s empowerment. It pretends women today, especially mothers, are doing nothing, where in reality the caregiving demands upon the sandwich generation (those caring for children and parents) are very great. It demands state-funded, centre-based daycare, where polls show 76 per cent of Canadians believe the best place for a child under six is at home. Finally, it is specifically coercive toward lower-income women, who will be pushed to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make. Women with lower education aren’t all going to join the skilled trades. Some are going to need to sacrifice precious time with young children for a minimum wage service job, while their kids are in daycare. It’s not the tradeoff many would prefer.

Imagine with me for a second that the budget focussed so much on men. Imagine that Budget 2018 referenced men 708 times instead of women. Men — we need to coax you into nursing! Men — not enough of you are kindergarten teachers! Men — don’t take time off with your children when they are young! Men — you can’t choose more paternity benefits — these are “use it or lose it” for women, only!

If that sounds pushy, it’s because it is.

(Andrea Mrozek: A truly pro-woman budget wouldn’t try to tell me how to live my life)

This is why many stay-at-home parents react defensively — because this is the sort of message with which we are constantly bombarded: our worth is measured by our economic prowess, and if we’re not contributing, we’re not pulling our weight. I may not be pulling in any money for our family. I may not be working the hardest job in the world. But those things don’t determine my worth, either to my family or to the national economy.

I’m not worth more than a working mother because I chose to stay home while my kids were little. But surely I am not worth less, either.