Most of us have a profound appreciation for our mothers that transcends description. As great as many fathers are, usually it is our mothers who have a more persistent and pervasive impact on our lives. Motherhood is highly valued, even revered, by individuals and in the majority of homes and families.
Once we leave our homes and enter public life, however, a remarkable transformation occurs. There, motherhood is viewed as a sort of exile or banishment from the important things in life, and as an unfortunate burden deserving of pity and calling out for rescue. As the influential political philosopher John Rawls put it, “A long and historic injustice to women is that they have borne, and continue to bear, an unjust share of the task of raising, nurturing, and caring for their children.” This task of raising children, in the understanding of Rawls and of mainstream American culture today, is a burden to be “borne.” As such, this burden should be divided as equitably as possible between mothers and fathers as a matter of justice.
This view—however well-meaning in its origin—has led to the mistaken and unjust social marginalization of the 10.4 million American women who fall under the description of “stay-at-home mother.” These full-time mothers, though they may look forward to being cherished and revered by their children (eventually!), are viewed by society as something akin to couch potatoes. Even the label “stay-at-home mom” evokes such an image—as if such mothers, when approached by an opportunity to get an actual job or make a real difference in the world, respond “No thanks, I think I’ll stay at home.”
Mother’s Day provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the value of the mothers in our own lives. But it should also lead us to reflect on the value of motherhood in general, its importance for our society, and the ways in which we might rescue full-time mothers not from motherhood itself but from the social marginalization that currently accompanies their choice.
The Progress of Gender Equality
Historically, full-time motherhood has not been what it is today: just one option among many open to women. Women have been systematically excluded from other occupations and treated unfairly if they strayed from their assigned sphere. In many societies, the role of wife and mother has included a badge of inferiority and even servitude to men. The domestic sphere has served in many cases as a prison, constraining women’s liberty to fully live out their vocations and to pursue happiness as human beings.
In modern American society, however, this is no longer the case, thanks in large part to the feminist movements of the twentieth century. Though vestiges of inequality may still remain, women are now legally and socially entitled—and even encouraged—to leave or avoid domestic life and pursue their own careers apart from motherhood. The decision to do so, moreover, is generally met with social applause and esteem. Women who make such a decision are referred to as “empowered,” “super moms,” or women who “have it all.”
It is easy to see the way this is a step forward for society: Women in the United States (and throughout the West) are now more widely appreciated as equal to men in intelligence and ability than they have ever been historically. The common humanity of men and women—a crucially important truth—has come more clearly to the forefront of our minds than it had been during earlier periods of society.
The Costs of Progress
This advance, however, has not come without significant costs. As the common humanity and equality of men and women have come to be more thoroughly appreciated, the natural diversity within humanity and the special social contributions that arise out of this rich diversity have been forgotten and denigrated. Full-time mothers, as the most obvious representatives of this natural diversity between the sexes and of the special social contributions corresponding to it, have become the primary victims of this development.
As the “Lean In” movement gains steam, and as many mothers become empowered super moms who have it all, society increasingly views full-time mothers in a negative light. If some moms can be wonderful mothers and pursue careers, why can’t all moms? What’s up with these stay-at-homers? If they simply don’t want to pursue careers, does this show some lack of ambition—or perhaps willing complicity in the historical subjugation of women?
Many women prefer either to be full-time mothers or to work part-time rather than to pursue full-time careers. According to a recent Pew Research survey, only 16 percent of women say that having a mother who works full-time is best for children. A significant proportion of working mothers are required by their economic circumstances to contribute to the household income. These women are, in a sense, in a similar position to that of women in previous periods of society: required to perform roles and engage in everyday tasks contrary to their wishes. They are prisoners not of their husbands but of economic pressures that are sometimes exacerbated by social ones.
The powerful economic and social pressures exerted against full-time motherhood are highly problematic for American society and culture. Full-time, stay-at-home motherhood is an activity with social benefits that are both difficult to document and felt only indirectly. Because of this, society tends not to notice its benefits. These benefits, however, are more profound and far-reaching than those derived from any private occupation or public service.
The Value of Parenting
The amount of good that a parent does in being present for a child is, I submit, greater than the amount of good that any CEO or world leader can accomplish through his or her work. A parent plays a significant and unique role in making a new human being—not merely in a child’s biological beginning, but in the whole course of psychological and spiritual development throughout his or her entire lifetime. Parents have an effect on their children that is not only greater but also different in kind from the effect that any other human being can exert on another. Simply being present for a child, and providing a good example for him or her to follow, has a more profound and intense positive effect on the world than what any politician or philanthropist can achieve. The amount of good done for that single child exceeds, I would argue, the amount of good done by any single individual in any other line of work.
American society at large does not seem to share this opinion, nor is it reflected in American culture. As long as full-time motherhood does not produce some immediate economic benefit, economic and social pressures will continue to effectively foreclose this choice for many women. If it matters that women have a genuine choice in their own pursuit of happiness, this is a serious problem. It becomes even more serious when we consider that fully 84 percent of women don’t think it’s best for their children for them to work full-time outside the home. Women have indeed been empowered to work outside the home, but in many cases and in many unforeseen ways, they also have been forced to do so against their wishes.
Valuing Full-Time Motherhood
Is there anything we as a society can do about this situation? I would propose the introduction of a significant tax deduction for households with a full-time parent. This deduction should be quite significant—on the order of 150 percent of the mean individual income—in order to achieve its economic and social purposes. Such a deduction would provide women with a less constrained choice between being a full-time mother and pursuing work outside the home. It would also signal the value that society should place on the inestimable contribution of motherhood.
Motherhood is a more important task for society than any other private occupation or public service. As we express appreciation for the immense importance of our mothers, and the mothers of our children in our own particular lives, we should sympathetically consider the plight of the modern full-time mother. No woman should feel constrained to be a full-time mother against her will. But no woman who would choose full-time motherhood should be unduly constrained by economic or social pressures to give up her all-important vocation.