Today is Mother's Day, the day when we stop to reflect and give thanks to those who gave us birth for their patience and sacrifice in bringing us into this world, and (hopefully) for caring for us throughout our childhood and beyond. And good thing, too: mothers have it harder now than ever. As Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen wage their Mommy Wars, what is often left out of the discussion is that whether or not one views women's liberation and out-of-home career aspirations as good things or not, the move of women into the workplace is driven just as much by necessity as by choice. It now takes far more than two incomes to produce the same standard of living that one income used to produce just a few decades ago. Productivity continues to increase in American corporations even as wages essentially stagnate, forcing both partners to work to earn money even if they would prefer that one of them stayed home.
Throw parenthood into the mix, and the situation becomes even more difficult. A child must be taken care of during the day. In the brave new economy, two working parents can use the public education system as mostly as a babysitting device once the child reaches a certain age--to the detriment of both the child and an education system ill equipped to stand in loco parentis. But before then childcare of some sort is a necessity during the regular workday--and that alone can often be expensive enough to almost negate the second parent's salary.
But then there's home life. Children have to be taken care of during the evening as well, usually by parents exhausted after an increasingly long and stressful workday and commute. And unfortunately, as Arlie Hochschild amply demonstrated in The Second Shift, most of the burden of that care falls on women. On mothers. Mothers who increasingly work the same or longer hours for pay than their spouses, if their spouse is even present at all.
Part of the problem, of course, is a set of cultural expectations placed on both genders. My own mother was a brutal victim of the Second Shift. My father taught us at home (that was in essence his "job"), but being very patriarchal and conservative about gender roles, he adamantly refused to do what he considered "women's work." All the dusting and scrubbing, the dishes and laundry, and most other similar work was women's work. "Man's work" was basically vacuuming (interestingly), and outdoor yardwork (in which women were also supposed to participate, but not in operating machinery.)
The injustice of this situation became apparent to me early on as a child. As a young teenager I "rebelled" by daring to help my mother do the laundry, for which I was roundly mocked by my father for being variously gay or playing the part of a female maidservant. My given nickname was "Maria" for about a month, and I was called a "fa**ot" more times than I can possibly count--simply for having the audacity to do the dishes and laundry, thus betraying my proper gender role.
While mine is obviously an extreme case, this sort of gender typing is extremely commonplace. Fathers teach their sons and daughters what their "proper" roles are in dividing work at home, and mothers are all-too-often complicit--sometimes eagerly so--in the training. That in turn makes the extraordinary burden of motherhood a generational one, a curse passed down from patriarchal generation to patriarchal generation, ensuring Second Shifts well into the next several decades and beyond.
And that, more than anything Ann Romney or Hilary Rosen might say, is the gravest insult to motherhood.
So on this Mother's Day, the best gift both men and women can give to their mothers is this: a devout promise to help break the cycle, and to end the social and economic practices that lead to the Second Shift and the additional burden on motherhood.
A promise to increase wages so that both mothers and fathers who wish to stay home to take care of their children can actually do so, even if they aren't married to multi-millionaire vulture capitalists. A promise to assist the burdens of single mothers and fathers. And a promise to end the gender stereotypes that keep working mothers indentured to a life of Second Shifts and endless stress. And, of course, a promise to make sure that women have the ability to choose at all times the times and circumstances under which they will or will not become mothers.
Let this generation be the last to so poorly respect as a society the amazing women we honor today.
Cross-posted from Digby's Hullabaloo