Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Meaning of Work: Motherhood

Written Assignment #2: Sociology class

Most often when you are introduced to someone new, the conversation follows a typical pattern. First, there's an exchange of names and pleasantries, often followed next by the question, "So, what do you do for work?". Learning what people do for work is typically a way to evaluate how much prestige we should bestow upon that person, or conversely, if we should simply weed out this potential relationship because it offers us no personal gain or networking value (Boley, 2000). Typically, we will hold onto the business card of a lawyer or that of a CEO of a large company, than of a janitor or telemarketer. Because this mindset is so prevalent, studies have been conducted to illustrate that there really is an actual rating system of prestige that we, as a society, have given numerous occupations. A quick glance over the results shows that the higher the income and more specialized the career, the higher the prestige which is allotted to it (Gorder and Frank, 2007).

But does holding a lower prestige job really warrant such a negative label? Occupations near either ends of the prestige scale offer some of the very same extrinsic rewards. Though differing in quantity, both offer the worker an income, a means to contribute to a pension however large or small, as well as possible extended health benefits. Similarly, both have comparable intrinsic rewards including things like the opportunity to interact with other adults/peers, opportunities for workers to feel like they're contributing to both the economy and society, and the chance to build up their resume with more experience so they can one day climb another rung on the corporate ladder. Perhaps there is less difference between these types of jobs than we initially realize.

Then what of a job that offers no salary, no health benefits, no pension building opportunities, no resume enrichment? A job that, instead, is highly demanding yet often mundane and tedious. One that asks for your time and energy 24/7, and occasionally leaving you feeling isolated from the outside world with little opportunity for meaningful contact with adults/peers. How might that job rate on the prestige scale? Who would be clambering for such a position?
Parenthood is considered by many to be one of those types of careers- a non-standard job that is not even included on the prestige scale mentioned above. With such seemingly little payoff for investment in this occupation, why are people willingly taking on this work? What makes this work meaningful if, by all other measures, it falls short?

For the purpose of this paper, I will be focusing exclusively on stay-at-home parents who choose to leave behind wage labour and the career world, in exchange for raising their children full time. Because most often, the parent who stays home with the children is the mother (Downing, 200), I will further narrow the topic to stay-at-home mothers. Though it should be mentioned that the contributions that stay at home fathers make is recognized and appreciated, especially given the unique stigmas they encounter in that job (Doucet 2004).

Never a black and white issue, the decision to stay home to look after her children, if she even economically has this as a choice, can be a difficult one with many trade-offs to consider. Leaving behind a familiar master status, potential career advancement, valuable income, and often a sense of self-worth, can rest heavily on a woman as she weighs out the alternatives to a professional career (Daniel, 2006) (Dillaway and Pare, 2008). But for those who are in a position to make a choice, the benefits of staying home cannot be ignored.

First of all, the decision to stay at home can bring with it some less obvious financial savings as the various roles and jobs that a stay at home mother performs no longer need to be contracted out to others (Pediatrics, 2008). According to studies done by Stacey Rubin and H. Ray Wooten (2007), they found that there were personal benefits for the mother when she chose to stay home, such as the personal satisfaction knowing that she wasn't 'missing out' on her child's life or milestones. She felt very good about being around during her child's formative years and being able to influence her child in a way that would be difficult to do if she had been at work. Rubin and Wooten also found there were benefits to the family, too. They learned that the children benefited from having a parent's time, and couples benefited from having more time together. There was more opportunity to build memories, time to “hang out”, to participate in fun activities, and have both quantity time and quality time as they formed close relationships.

The consequences of having a parent, typically the mother, choose to stay home with her children can be both positive and negative. She may not be seen as a 'success' in the eyes of society by giving up career potential, income for her family, or more mind stimulating days. She may, on occasion, experience frustration with her decision to stay at home, experience feelings of failure due to a lack of any immediate appreciation for the tasks she has taken on, and face exhaustion from the constant demands on her time. But if we look at the bigger picture, we see that what she does have is the opportunity to largely raise and influence a part of a future generation, the children that she and her partner have chosen to raise. By virtue of her staying at home with them, she is the primary influence on her young children, helping to instill in them the ideals and morals that they, as a family, value most and that contribute to society at large. She is 'there' as a witness in her children's lives for the many things they do and accomplish in life. Mundane conversations of a child simply asking "Mom?" are, at the same time, priceless moments when she is there to reply "Yes?". It is really the little things like this that add up and over time, become paramount. Though there is such a thing as quality time, often times what matters more is quantity time - simply being there beside a child as they navigate through life (Snyder 2007).

Raising children is not easy, immediately gratifying, or a financially prosperous venture. The prestige granted to a woman who answers the question, "What do you do for work?" with a reply of, "I'm at home raising my children," may not match that of what a doctor would receive. But in the end, she makes her decision after considering what is best for her and her family. She knows that the meaning of her work cannot be measured in dollars and cents, but rather, in the satisfaction received from the warmth of a gentle hug from her child who pushes the hair away from her ear to whisper a deep secret about nothing in particular.

-Heather McCue

2008. “STUDY: MOM'S MARKET VALUE AT $117,000..” Pediatrics 122:12.

Boley, Robert M. 2000. “The Power of Networking..” Assessment Journal 7:4.

Daniel, Lincia. 2006. “To go to work or stay at home? The mother of all parenting debates. (Cover story).” British Journal of Midwifery 14:494.

Dillaway, Heather, and Elizabeth Pare. 2008. “Locating Mothers.” Journal of Family Issues 29:437-464.

Doucet, Andrea. 2004. “"It's Almost Like I Have a Job, but I Don't Get Paid": Fathers at Home Reconfiguring Work, Care, and Masculinity..” Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, & Practice about Men as Fathers 2:277-303.

Downing, Jane. 2000. “Just a Feminist Mother.” Social Alternatives 19:57-62.

Goyder, John, and Krislyn Frank. 2007. “A Scale of Occupational Prestige in Canada, Based on NOC Major Groups.” Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie 32:63-83.

Rubin, Stacey E., and H. Ray Wooten. 2007. “Highly Educated Stay-at-Home Mothers: A Study of Commitment and Conflict..” Family Journal 15:336-345.

Snyder, Karrte Ann. 2007. “A Vocabulary of Motives: Understanding How Parents Define Quality Time..” Journal of Marriage & Family 69:320-340.

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