Free labor: Where's mom's signing bonus?

Back in the days when technology jobs appeared limitless and hot-shot new enterprises challenged the gospel of conventional business practices, there was an enthusiastic notion that soon the nation would be run by folks in their bathrobes-– that the computer had vanquished rush hour, and telecommuting would make offices obsolete.
Dot-com bust be damned, there are an awful lot of Americans working from home. But there’s nothing new about it, nothing particularly hi-tech or cyber-sexy. The largest single occupation in this country is homemaking-– and God knows it doesn’t pay well.
“Raising children may be the most important job in the world,” writes Ann Crittenden, keynote speaker at this year’s FOCUS conference, “but you can’t put it on a resumé.”
Child rearing is an eternal obstacle for the women’s movement. Still a public debate, the question of how, and even whether, to balance a career and family is now a clamorous internal argument for most women. I’m a stay-at-home-and-try-to-work-with-mixed-results mom myself. I’m familiar with the “mommy tax” and the steady depreciation of my hirability. I also fully acknowledge the affronted reply of women who choose to forego a family in favor of a career. They are making sacrifices too. The superlative merit of child rearing is not, objectively speaking, a fair argument.
But Crittenden, an award-winning economic journalist and a mother, is not being sanctimonious; she is referring to the economic value of childcare. If two-thirds of the wealth created in a modern economy is generated by human skill and innovation, then parenting turns out to be the prime producer of wealth.
“Human capital” she calls it, and she’s backed up by a less dynamic but more recognized economist, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. The “most important job in the world” was how he characterized motherhood.
That the “most important job in the world” is undervalued is the essence of Crittenden’s extensive research. In this country in particular, where family values are ubiquitous in political chatter but scarce in actual policy initiatives, the discrepancy is glaring. In addition to the social stigma and economic penalty attached to “not working,” the national economy flat-out disregards the long-term investment of a mother’s labor. Only four other countries can claim a higher rate of female college graduates working for free.
Without getting into a harangue about who “works” harder, let’s just remember that a telecommuting executive can stay in his bathrobe all day– the stay-at-home mom, never.

Ann Crittenden is the author of The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is the Least Valued. She will give the keynote address at the FOCUS Women’s Resource Center annual conference on Saturday, October 5, at Monticello High School. To register for the day-long event, contact Mary Spear. 293-2222 x30. $10 fee includes lunch.

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