Elevate Difference

The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued

Like many of my generation, I am a child of divorce. I watched as my newly single mother struggled to work, find and pay for childcare, and afford lawyers that could compete with my father’s during endless days of court. I watched as we plummeted into poverty while my wealthy father’s lifestyle barely changed. I am the daughter of a woman who chose to sacrifice her career to raise me, and who was subsequently penalized by a system that encouraged her to do precisely that. As such, I am profoundly grateful for the tenth anniversary edition of The Price of Motherhood, a book where former New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden reminds us that despite the incessant rhetoric about “family values,” America has yet to put its money where its mouth is and motherhood is still dangerously undervalued.

Crittenden seeks to demonstrate that it is motherhood and not being female that is the primary source of women’s inequality. Mothering, she claims, is dismissed by American culture as something menial, and the housewife’s work is neither politically nor economically recognized as labor. Despite this; however, inflexible workplaces almost guarantee that women will have to cut back or quit their job when they have children, resulting in a “mommy tax” of approximately $1 million in lost income for an educated mother. Moreover, when women sacrifice their careers to raise children, their unpaid labor does not entitle them to the breadwinner’s income during marriage or after a divorce. Women often have to ask their husbands for money to cover basic expenses or they’re put on an allowance that is only a fraction of the husband’s income. During divorces, many states are reluctant to give women half the assets or the highest child support payment. They also rarely go after dads who refuse to pay even the smallest sums. It is because of all of these reasons that Crittenden argues that motherhood is the single biggest risk factor for poverty, and women—who have fought to earn respect for their work in the workplace—need to keep fighting to win respect for their work in the home.

By design, Crittenden’s book promotes an intersectional approach to examining the “price of motherhood,” utilizing gender analysis, the law, public policy, and economics. Each chapter features an in-depth analysis of one of the problems facing mothers and multiple sources, including personal stories of Crittenden’s life as a mother and interviews with other women. Crittenden’s decision to use such a wide variety of sources, coupled with the structure of the book, ultimately facilitates her argument that “the price of motherhood” is derived and perpetuated from multiple locations. The book’s conclusion features a list of concrete suggestions and policy changes that should be made to “bring children up without putting women down,” a list that could be helpful to a wide array of readers, from mothers and feminist organizations to politicians.

Crittenden chooses not to rely heavily on theory, possibly in an attempt to make her book accessible to a wider audience and to better showcase her breezy, witty writing. Unfortunately; however, a lack of theory allows her to ignore feminist theorists who fear a focus on motherhood produces the idea that women are “naturally” suited for the family. She never addresses theorists, such as Wendy Brown, who argue that women should be wary of relying on the state—a patriarchal institution—for protection, or who argue that welfare regimes only swap a woman’s dependency on a husband’s paycheck for a (patriarchal) government’s check. Indeed, Crittenden seems slightly wary of taking a position on the “naturalness” of women’s mothering, hinting at times that there is something innately caring in women. I also felt she stressed the importance of having a mother at home too much, which could lead to a backlash.

Overall, I think The Price of Motherhood is a tremendously important book. It is perfect for an introductory women’s studies class, or any economics, law, and public policy class with a feminist focus. It is also a book I think every woman should read. We’re told repeatedly that we can “have it all,” but The Price of Motherhood reminds us that mothers don’t have it all—yet.

Written by: Shannon Hill, March 1st 2011

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