Rinaldi proposes that we reframe motherhood as a privilege. In doing so, she wrote, “we redirect agency back to the mother, empowering her, celebrating her autonomy instead of her sacrifice. … [B]y owning our roles as mothers and refusing the false accolades of martyrdom, we do more to empower all women.” This might not be the ideal ideal, since “privilege” is an awfully charged term at the moment. (And for the record, whatever it means to be a parent, I’m not one.) But by calling attention to the importance of parenting without succumbing to the ideals of hypercompetitive work culture, Rinaldi is pushing us in the right direction.
A big reason we call motherhood a job is to impress upon our patriarchal, work-obsessed society the value, importance, and difficulty of women’s unpaid domestic labor. But in adopting the vocabulary of an oppressive system in order to improve women’s prospects within it, we concede the nature the system itself. If everything is work, then talk of “work-life balance” is a sham. If the only way to carve out respect and real benefits for new parents is to acknowledge that they have other work to do, outside of their day jobs, then those gains come at the cost of strengthening work’s ideological hold on us.
From the earliest English settlements forward, a person’s place in America has been contingent on their work. White settlers justified their claim to the land by toiling on it; in their eyes, the Natives had no property rights, because they didn’t seem to work. Soon after, millions of Africans would be brought here as slave labor. When Emancipation finally came, African Americans were still told they must work.
Even now, our political debates are shaped by the belief that only workers have value. One version of congressional Republicans’ failed health-care bill included a work requirement for people on Medicaid. Our leaders question the merits of admitting refugees on human-rights grounds, and demand guarantees that immigrants will work productively. Meanwhile, the labor force participation rate has been in decline since the beginning of the century, meaning there are more and more Americans every day whose value we will struggle to describe.
There are other paradigms available. The lower-key approaches to parenting in France and Holland seem appealing; less supervision, less homework, and more sleep supposedly mean fewer tantrums and happier kids. But those practices are of a piece with shorter European workweeks, mandated vacations, and generous support for new parents. Americans work 25 percent more than Europeans, according to some studies, and take far fewer vacations.
Policies don’t exist in a vacuum; they need cultural support. We can start by changing our metaphors for meritorious human activities like parenting, education, and marriage. A single word—whether it’s “sacrifice,” “privilege” or anything else—isn’t enough to capture something as complex as motherhood. But at least we can introduce a few alternatives: vocation and avocation, role and duty, service and contribution.
But we need to do more than expand our vocabulary; we need to reconsider our values and priorities as a society. We should support generous social policies for parents and children not because what they do is work, but because health, education, and time for caretaking—even time for sunbathing at the beach—helps them, and ultimately the rest of us, to flourish. That’s what our society should truly be working toward.