How much is a mother worth?

"What is forgotten in debates about parenting payment is that mothering is work."

"What is forgotten in debates about parenting payment is that mothering is work." Photo: Getty Images

So far, the debate about cuts in the income of single mothers has revolved around the question of whether or not it is possible to live on Newstart. This is, of course, a worthy question. But for me it sidesteps some of the larger issues at hand.

At the heart of the matter lies the age old problem of who is responsible for the children and what is the cost of that responsibility.  Women, and not just single mothers, are often left with the lion’s share when it comes to parenting. Mothering undoubtedly has its rewards but it is often a significant encumbrance when it comes to being part of the workforce. There has been a push in recent years for fathers to share the ‘burden’ of this care, but – on the whole – we are not there yet.  

Statistics about the discrepancy between men’s and women’s incomes, even when doing the same job, are well established. When I was a teenager understanding how this difference could conceivably exist was impossible. My high school was full of high achieving girls: passionate, dedicated, intelligent creatures who, it seemed, would one day rule the world. How could it be that when these girls made their way out into society they would somehow become the underdogs? I thought about it a lot, but the answer remained elusive. Discrimination? Based on what?

It was only when I reached university that the answer became clear. An introductory Gender Studies subject was all it took. I still remember the bookshelf of the library I was standing in front of when the revelation hit. It was all about mothering. The sudden knowledge came at me sideways, a painful thwack. To build a career and have children I was going to have to do two full-time jobs, only one of them paid, and juggling these two jobs would leave me exhausted and frayed at the edges. And, as the statistics consistently showed, doing these two jobs would mean I’d often be left in the dust.

I must admit, it was not an appealing future.

What is forgotten in debates about parenting payment is that mothering is work. It may not be financially remunerated, or a sure-fire path to the top, but it is work nonetheless. And if mothers didn’t do it, someone else would have to be paid to. Although childcare workers are among the lowest paid in our ranks, we still don’t expect them to work for nothing. There is an annual American survey by Salary.com which attempts to estimate how much the average mother would earn a year if they were actually paid for the work they do. In 2012, the average stay-at-home mum came in at about $113 000 a year, with a working mum adding about $66 000 to their annual income. It would certainly be interesting to see an Australian calculation.

All this brings me to the difficult question – what is the value of mothering? Clearly, our whole society chugs along quite nicely on the unpaid labour of women and has for some time. Perhaps it has been this way since the invention of money, but that doesn’t make it right.

Inarguably, things have improved in our nation for women in the last half century, mothers included. The introduction of the Supporting Mothers Benefit in 1973 could rate as one of the biggest wins for feminism in Australian history. Mothers being paid for mothering. A fiscal value being placed on what is undeniably a vital and worthy labour. But it has never really been seen this way. From a sympathetic vantage point, providing ‘parenting payment single’ is seen as an act of generosity from a caring community; a safety net for abandoned mothers which prevents them and their offspring from slipping irrevocably into poverty. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it is seen as an easy route for pregnant teenage dropouts to sit pretty whilst contributing nothing to society for the rest of their sorry lives.

Nowhere in either of these mindsets is there room for a real discussion of the value of mothering to our society at large. If we leave aside an attempt to put a monetary value on the labour of mothering, we are left with an entirely different set of parameters. Mothers care for children. Children are our next generation. The quality of care they receive is imperative to our future. Does it not seem palpably obvious that the value of mothering is therefore high?

Gillard’s strategy to move mothers from parenting payment single to Newstart once their last child turns eight will create an estimated savings of $728 million over four years. Right on target for budget surplus come next election. That the government sees single mothers as the easiest target when it comes to revenue-raising, the least likely spending cut to create a voter backlash, says a lot about our country. To suppose this budget cut is an equitable solution is to assume that once children have settled into school it is a fair playing field for single mothers in the workforce. Deep down, we all know this isn’t true.

And to believe that having older children is less of a burden on mothers is to have very little understanding of the issues at play. In the simplest of terms, I am a single mother with two teenage boys. My oldest is fifteen, 6 foot 1, weighs 80kgs, and easily eats as much as two grown women. Feeding him alone is a substantial cost, and that is just the problem of sustenance. Taking into account the varied and multifaceted nature of my children’s demands upon my time and resources, the Newstart allowance is something of a joke. Working part time, as I did previously, will now cost me 40 cents in every dollar I earn over $31 a week. What else is this but a deterrent? I am left with a choice between living in poverty or attempting to join the full-time workforce. ‘Attempting’ being the operative word. Each of these paths is littered with motherhood-related impediments.
I used to be so proud to live in a nation that paid mothers for being mothers. It is disturbing that in order to balance the budget our government is taking money from those of us who give so much and already receive so little in return. If we are to live in a society that considers everything only in terms of a spread sheet, it is time we started to count the cost of parenting, especially for those of us who go it alone.

Mothering is work. Women enter into motherhood at great personal cost, yet the contribution of mothers to society is immense, and – let’s face it – vital to the continuation of our world as we know it.
Pay us what we’re worth.

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54 comments

  • Well said. Doubtless people will post comments along the lines of " you chose to have children. . ." . Or that old troll favourite of " the world is over populated and we do not need more children . . ." But seriously. We need parents and we need to support them so their children in turn support us in our older years by continuing to create a functioning society we can all live in.

    Commenter
    Katey
    Date and time
    January 08, 2013, 3:19AM
    • I agree with you, however there are bad parents out there in this bad old world and unfortunate children who are born to people who are the worse but flip it over and there are the best parents a child could ever imagine, it's not just about looking after us when old it's about love. Hold that new baby first hug and hug back. I'm in my 80's I close my eyes and reminisce the soft velvet touch of a babies skin and of course what mother can forget that new baby smell. Only a mother can really smell that scent of warmth and love. MMMMM..Im going to cry...

      Commenter
      Pickled Herring
      Location
      Frankston
      Date and time
      January 08, 2013, 9:18AM
    • Agree, Katey. About time this article was published. Now it just needs to be printed in the main paper.Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan have not only behaved despicably, but stupidly. Condemning single parent families (and the unemployed) to further poverty isn't going to help anyone, especially society at large. The SMH recently reported that 17% of homeless people were aged 10 or under (or it might have been 18 and under,if anyone can remember). Gillard and Swan are behaving like social philistines.

      Commenter
      Drspacegirl
      Date and time
      January 08, 2013, 12:52PM
    • And what about single dads? We work, clean, cook, wash, drive, etc, just as much as the mums. Sure, the unequal pay sucks big time but we're doing it tough out there too!

      Commenter
      Torch
      Date and time
      January 08, 2013, 3:16PM
  • To be clear, my issue is a semantic one rather than a policy one...

    Why must we refer to being a mother as "work" or "a job"? Being a mother describes a relationship which may or may not entail caring responsibilities, as does father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, step-mother etc...

    Being a carer is a lot of work, which many people make a profession out of and which many do as their primary "outside of 9-5 paid work" activity. Being a mother does not automatically entail caring responsibilities, despite the fact that the two roles are often in concert with each other.

    In our language and our society we make no distinction between the parent relationship and the caring role - cue stay-at-home / working mother debate and resultant feelings of guilt.

    Being a mother or father is valuable regardless of the amount of caring work that is attached to that relationship, and should be recognised as such. Being a carer is valuable regardless of the relationship between the carer and the child, and should be recognised as such. Separately.

    Commenter
    HB
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 08, 2013, 8:04AM
    • I get so angry and frustrated when people around me start talking about how single mothers shouldn't get paid anything, and that women only have 'kids for the money'...have they ever stopped to think about WHY there are so many single? The number of women I have spoken to that had to face the choice between abuse and eating and having a roof over their head was phenomenal, and incredibly sad. Men don't want to support their partners, or stay in a committed relationship any more. Even being in a relationship doesn't guarantee your needs are looked after, but Centrelink doesn't give a rats because you are sleeping with someone in the same house. The assumption that sex=financial security has to go from the government's vocabulary too. I was worse off financially with someone who worked full time and refused to help pay for anything than I am alone! People applaud that the govt recognised same-sex relationships, but really, they were only doing it so they could chop more off people's payments in the same way and save themselves a heap of money. Until motherhood is looked at as raising the next generation that will be making and buying the continuing economy, nothing will change.

      Commenter
      Bea
      Location
      Newcastle
      Date and time
      January 08, 2013, 10:44AM
      • I'm sorry but I cannot agree.

        Once your children are high school aged, you should be seeking full time work. Its not reasonably to expect the State (and other taxpayers) to pay for you to raise your children.

        I understand its not always easy to secure full time work but that doesnt mean you shouldnt try.

        Commenter
        Sarah
        Date and time
        January 08, 2013, 11:19AM
        • Completely agree. Which is not to say that there aren't barriers to getting back to work that can't be removed, but if your kids are all at school you should be at least looking for part-time work or skilling up.

          Commenter
          Kate
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          January 08, 2013, 12:19PM
        • I agree... I also feel that once teenagers reach a certain age, parents should start introducing them to the idea of paying their own way/looking after themselves.

          I got my first job at age 15 and while I didn't have to pay rent or board or anything like that, I was expected to buy my own school books, pay for excursions and also the concept of asking mum for money was completely alien to me. The answer was always "where is your money?"

          When I was a teenager it sucked to hear this but as an adult I feel that I really grew up learning the value of money and that it is not always easy to come by.

          I see too many parents these days lavishing expensive gifts upon their children and never saying no and I wonder how these children will grow into adults if they've never heard the word "no".

          Commenter
          Adrian
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          January 08, 2013, 1:58PM
        • Sarah, being a parent IS WORK. That's the whole point of this article. Raising kids is a SOCIAL responsibility and if we want a better future, we need to start placing more value on those who do the work. Having kids in school doesn't mean the work required to care for them magically stops, especially if you're single. I'm not even a parent and I know that!

          Don't get me wrong, I agree that once your kids are in school you have a bit more time during the day, and that parents should use that time wisely like upskilling and getting part time work if that works for them and their current situation, but they shouldn't be PUNISHED for not doing so either - not everyone has the ability to magically "get a job" (from the magical jobby tree, of course!!) or has the luxury of being able to work from home, or the skills or brains or money to get a decent education, and combine that with cuts to TAFE spending, how do you expect people who are already poor to pay for it? on top of the costs they already have of raising children? oh that's right, force them into low-paying, exploitative jobs, then take half their paycheck, that'll fix it! **eyeroll**

          We need to stop punishing people for being born in the wrong social class. There is absolutely no gains in forcing single parents further into poverty. If you want the poor to stop being poor, give them the tools to get themselves out - and surprise, that costs money. Making them poorer WILL NOT achieve this.

          Commenter
          Miffy
          Date and time
          January 08, 2013, 2:39PM

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