Every year—usually around Mother’s Day—some organization or other makes press for calculating the actual market value of motherhood. You know, with values for all of the individual jobs it entails; taxi driver, laundress, nurse, etc. And inevitably the total—usually about $300,000 if I remember correctly — is met with water-cooler type banter, often debating whether that estimate is too high or too low.
It’s all in good fun, but it does come to mind every so often for me when I start to doubt my own value. Is it true that my value as a mother equates to the total value of all of the jobs I do? The idea is interesting, but seems unrealistic.
As a woman who has no other paid occupation, this is something I grapple with. I mean, honestly, I can’t even come up with a name for what I do; how can I even begin to put a value on it? “Full time mother” sounds like a slight to working moms (Like, what are they, part-time mothers? I think not.) Non-working mom? Ouch. Homemaker? It sounds like I sew curtains and bake cookies and wear an apron all day– Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that I can’t sew and I never wear an apron (I have one, for when my own mother visits. But I hardly see the point in wearing a $30 Williams Sonoma apron to protect a $9 Target tee-shirt.) Housewife? I didn’t marry a house. So I just kinda stick with “I’m a Mom” and leave it at that; figuring that people will figure out that if I had some more compelling title, like talk show host or astronaut, that’s what I would have led with.
So that’s me. I’m a Mom. That’s what I’ve done for the past nine years. And lately it is something I’ve been turning over and over in my mind, trying to come to some sort of terms with. I’m seeing friends who have kept their careers meet great success, reaping the benefits of their years of service. And I’m seeing other friends who have taken time away from their jobs start back at work, some slowly, some jumping right in. And, as I try to determine when or if or why or how I will start working again, I realize that I have to figure out how I feel about how I’ve spent my time for the past nine years. What is the value of what I do, and of what I’ve spent nine years doing?
Today was a particularly yucky kind of day for me, for no particular reason—the kids are healthy, they got along fairly well, no major meltdowns or breakdowns. The car didn’t leave me stranded, I didn’t drop my bag of groceries in the parking lot of the Giant…it was, by and large, a pretty good day. But as little annoyances built up and grew and got under my skin, I found that, by nightfall, I was pretty much a basket case. First, I started with my “Fuck this, I’m getting a fucking job” pity party. Which just becomes a bigger self-pity party when I realize that 1—I would then have a job and still be doing what I do now, and 2—If I stopped doing half the things I do now –and here is the depressing part—most likely, nobody would even notice. Really. I’ve gone on strike before. Stop sweeping up the dog hair? Nobody notices. Stop weeding the front flower beds? Nobody cares. Stop feeding the fish? They’d probably die, and then nobody would notice that they were dead, except me, who would try to take a stand by not emptying them from their fish bowl until they really stunk, and then I’d be mad that nobody even noticed the smell but me.
So, by this point (if you’re even still reading), you’re probably noticing that I’ve worked into an incredibly robust “woe is me” aria. I’m really good at that. I’ve had years of practice. And usually, it pretty much ends there, and I see a shiny object and wander off and forget all about it until another day.
But today it kinda stuck with me long enough that I started really asking myself some tough questions. What exactly am I doing? Why? And, what is the value in what I do?
And it dawned on me that, in most jobs, no matter how lousy the day goes, we know that the XYZ Company values us at exactly the amount of our salary. And if we get a raise? They value us more. So, the value of our work isn’t what we personally value ourselves at. The value of our work is what we are worth in the eyes of our employers.
And then, something even bigger dawned on me: I knew this all along. Thus the good and bad days. When the kids take me for granted, I feel valued at nothing. When my husband complains about the brand of toothpaste I bought on sale, I feel valued at nothing. Because I have no other “compensation and review” practice, my self-worth is reflected in whomever I feel is judging me at that moment. When my mother in law not-so-subtly critiques me for how I discipline my children, or when a friend makes an offhand remark about ‘those stay-at-home mothers,’ I instantly identify that as a critical mark on a performance review. Conversely, when one of Evan’s aides comments that the reason he is doing so well in his therapies and school work is largely because of the extra attention he receives because I don’t work, I feel like I just got a huge raise.
At this point in my writing, I’m starting to feel guilty because you are about to discover that there’s no big happy ending here. My next sentence isn’t “and then Oprah heard my story and gave me 20 million dollars just for being me, and I got the new kitchen of my dreams and I realized once I was filthy rich that I am really happy doing what I do and I didn’t want to change a thing, except maybe the $9 tee shirt.”
Not a chance. But I think maybe I’ll work at not letting random outsiders put the value on what I do. Good or bad, their opinions don’t really matter. But I think, maybe, I already knew that, too.