The Work of Mothers
Today I’ll wake up, do the Sunday laundry and cooking, and clean my house. I’ll read with a 10-year-old, call my mother, and fall asleep with my partner.
At 33, my life looks a lot like my mom’s.
Granted at my age she had four kids, aged from 9 to 15 and a marriage of 15 years, while I instead opted for the PhD and military career. And yet, today, our days are the same.
It hasn’t always been this way. I’ve spent my Sundays doing everything from running marathons to fighting wars to nursing hangovers in European cities or on cheap IKEA couches, I’ve even spent a Sunday or two in jail. Just a few weeks after my 18th birthday I left home for college in the city, and then the Marine Corps, and then adult life on either coast, and for the past 15 years my life has looked very different from my mother’s. But a few things are the same.
Our days are both, inevitably filled with work. Washing dishes, teaching math, managing relationships. Some days my work looks more like researching theories or debating military strategic theory, but all my days are filled with work. Because that was one of the most useful lessons my mother has taught me — the value of work. All work.
COVID-19 has made this clearer than ever. This pandemic has made scientists, doctors, nurses, grocery workers, cooks, and janitors all essential workers. It has decided that workers across the spectrum of “skilled work” are important. It has determined that the woman who can develop a vaccine is as useful as the man who can mop the floor or the teenager who can stock shelves. Perhaps the next crisis or situation will determine that other workers are most important. That’s the beauty of our diverse labor force.
But I’ve always known that. I’ve also seen the work that often goes unappreciated as necessary. I’ve seen the hours my mother has spent over a sink or stove, both paid and unpaid. I may not have valued it then, but I certainly cherish those hours now. I’ve come to realize that she was showing me that being a mother may not be a job, but it is certainly work. I recognize now the example she was setting for me, to work hard and respect those who do the same.
There seem to be a few trends today regarding work that are both unfounded and dangerous. There is the long-standing idea that “skilled” labor is more valuable than “unskilled” labor. That cleaning houses or fixing carburetors is less valuable than generating policy or critiquing theory. That idea is wrong.
In an anti-intellectual backlash, there has been a growing trend that trade work is more valuable than intellectual work, that work with your hands is better, more honorable, more challenging, and more American than working with your mind. This idea is also wrong.
And the third theory isn’t really a theory at all, but rather a gross overlooking of the unpaid labor of women. Some estimate that the work of women in the United States alone is worth $1.5 trillion annually.
My mother has disproved all these myths, by showing me, every day, the value of work. By asking with genuine curiosity about my work, even though I really don’t know how to explain it (and by extension she claims to not really understand it). She’s never made me feel less than, or more than, because I chose a different path than her. She’s always taught me to do the work I can, the best I can.
So, on this Mother’s Day I’ll be celebrating the work of mothers everywhere, the doctors, teachers, clerical assistants, lawyers, executives, cooks, janitors, and mothers. I see you and I value your work. Happy Mother’s Day