Yes, I know, Mom is priceless — but the annual mea culpa spending to atone for all the grief that we caused her over the years comes to a pretty hefty price tag. Retailers expected last week’s deluge of Mother’s Day cards, flowers and candy to rake in a whopping $16 billion. In other words, if you coughed up anything less than $139.14, your mother may be justified in feeling that you’ll never amount to much. But the exorbitant sums that got spent on merchandizing our mamas belie the true disregard for motherhood that permeates our culture.
This is particularly true for mothers who work outside the home. In recent years, the media has knocked itself silly publishing stories about “opt-out” moms, mothers who “choose” to stay home with their children rather than work for compensation in the workplace. Census figures do not support this supposed exit of women from the workplace. The fact is that most mothers work, and they do so because it is necessary for the economic support of their families. When women do leave the workplace, it is usually due to reasons like inadequate child care, inflexible work hours and workplace hostility toward mothers.
Stories that talk about women choosing to leave work ignore the context that forces those decisions. The reality is not so much that women opt out but that they are forced out. As E.J. Graff, a senior researcher for the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism explains, “(M)aybe some women ‘chose’ to go home. But they didn’t choose the restrictions and constrictions that made their work lives impossible. They didn’t choose the cultural expectation that mothers, not fathers, are responsible for their children’s doctor visits, birthday parties, piano lessons and summer schedules. And they didn’t choose the bias or earnings loss that they face if they work part-time or when they go back full time.”
Graff goes on to point out that despite all the pious soundbites about “family values,” the reality is that the structure of American society is very hostile to childrearing: “On a variety of basic policies — including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs and healthcare that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job — the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the (United States) is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave — along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.”
What Graff and others such as Boston University professor Caryl Rivers make clear is that when mothers leave the workforce, it is not, as the media loves to portray it, a personal lifestyle choice but a decision that is made on the basis of the reality of the conditions in which women struggle to support and raise their children. And as The Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt has pointed out, when rich, white women decide to leave the work force, we celebrate and glorify their decision. But when a poor mother does so, often for similar concerns about childcare, etc., we condemn her choice and refer to her dismissively as a “Welfare Mom,” a far cry from the celebrated “Opt-Out Mom.” What the media paints as a choice to opt out is in reality what historian and journalist Ruth Rosen terms “a poverty of acceptable options.”
Certainly, choice seems like a rather cynical term for work that provides no salary, benefits or job security. And it should be noted that we rarely expect a father to “choose” such an option that, according to a report by Salary.com, would, if fairly valued, pay a salary of $138,095.
So while you shell out just over 1 percent of that amount to honor Mom this year, give some thought to just what price we pay for not fully and fairly valuing motherhood.
Lucinda Marshall is the proud mother of Josh and Toby and the grateful daughter of Maxine. Contact her at