There’s No Paycheck for Motherhood: Finding Value in the Home

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A reader who stays home with her children recently asked me about how to avoid feeling guilty that she’s not bringing in a paycheck the way she did before becoming a mother. She writes, “I still feel ‘less than’ for not monetarily contributing to my family. I have a hard time with being financially dependant on my husband.” She is experiencing what I think so many mothers struggle with. How does our self-esteem react to that “lack of a paycheck”? I often describe myself as a “ballet teacher” even though I only teach one or two afternoons a week rather than “stay at home mom,”( a far more accurate description of my life.) Why? Why do I feel the need to emphasize my work outside the home?

I think we need an entirely different perspective. One that doesn’t equate value with money and liberation with consumption.

I went from being the breadwinner while my husband was finishing his degree, to staying at home with our first child and working only 5-10 hours a week. My paycheck was suddenly tiny and it was often hard to see my contribution to our family as something of real value.

One of my favorite writers is poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer, Wendell Berry. His essays completely changed my view of the value of my role as a mother and “homemaker.” Berry acknowledges the lack of respect given to those (men and women) whose work is centered around the home. In an essay titled “Racism and the Economy” he notes:

“…it should not be necessary to point out the connection between the oppression of women and the general contempt for household work. It is well established among us that you may hold up your head in polite society with a public lie in your mouth or other people’s money in your pocket or innocent blood on your hands, but not with dishwater on your hands or mud on your shoes.”

Wow. Work comprised of caring for one’s own home: laundry, dishes, and other home maintenance is nothing to be proud of in our society and even carries a hint of shame. It is viewed as drudgery. But why is homemaking drudgery and any work outside the home “liberating”? Berry questions how freeing the kind of liberation both men and women seek in our society truly is:

Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please: to sell ourselves for a high salary, a home in the suburbs, and idle weekends. But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and of each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Why is it that obeying the requests of an employer is liberating, while working out of love to care for one’s family is oppressive? We need a different view in which freedom means the ability to care for “ourselves and of each other” and emphasizes the community of the whole family.

In one my favorite essays of all time, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” Berry compares the modern household of consumption with a different kind of household—one that views marriage and the home not as a competition between spouses for power and success, but as common work and common life:

The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, “mine” is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as “ours.”

I just love this description and I think leaving behind the need to compete with one’s spouse over the amount of one’s financial contribution to the household and beginning to see your family and home as a common work and common life is the key. What you have you have in common.

And this understanding of home as something held in common must be paired with an understanding of the immeasurable value of raising children. For those of us who take on the role of mother (whether we work in the home or outside the home as well), we undertake a colossal task of great value.

I’ll leave you with a quote about the huge task of motherhood from G.K. Chesterton, one of my favorites:

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labours, and holidays; to be Whitely within a certain area, providing toys, boots, cakes and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can imagine how this can exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone and narrow to be everything to someone? No, a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.

Motherhood is a larger and more overwhelming realm than any job or academic program I have ever experienced. It challenges me at every turn. I don’t get paid as a professional chef, but I have learned to provide nourishing meals for my family. I don’t get paid as a professional teacher, but each day I am educating my children. I am not a professional nurse, but I’m often stroking fevered brows, giving breathing treatments to our asthmatic toddler, and caring for my family’s health. My contribution as “mother” to my family doesn’t come with a paycheck, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a rich and valuable contribution, and the most rewarding role of my life.

 

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Comments

  1. Rashelle Gillett says

    Haley,
    Thank you so much for this post. I really needed to read these encouraging words. It has been a long-time dream of mine to be a stay-at-home mom. I am finally starting to live that dream, but I am feeling guilty and somewhat ashamed of it. I recently quite school so I could turn more of my attention on our home. I have been afraid to tell people for fear of being judged. I already have a degree and had a career so there is no pressing need for me to get another degree. My husband completely supports my staying home and is content with being the main breadwinner. We are expecting our little one in March, so as I prepare to be a mom, I can learn to be content with my new role. Thank you again!

  2. LMM says

    Haley, I just love how you write about this issue. Your ability to sidestep the mommy wars on this is admirable – I am the breadwinner in my family, and often feel that moms who write about the importance of motherhood don’t get that moms who work out of the home are still incredibly committed to their children and their vocation as wives and mothers. I never get that from you, which is so, so refreshing.

    And onto your larger point – YES! We have moved so far from valuing the centrality of the home and family, so men and women are often forced to spend most of their time outside the home to work (primarily for the financial benefit of others,) just to get more money, which they spend on consumer goods, which further enriches others, and on and on. The value of domestic work, not to mention just time spent together as a family, is diminished when everyone is supposed to be “billing” as much as possible… No good. I’ve been reading more about distributism recently – so interesting, as any economic system based on Catholic social teaching would be! It’s applying the principles to modern life that is the hard part.

    • Haley says

      Because I worked full-time for Benjamin’s whole first year, I understand how hard it is to be a working mom and that sometimes it’s the best way to care for your family and love your kids. So, I’m so glad that I didn’t come across as anti-working mom! Thank you.

      You are so right about the way our society is structured forcing most families to have two working parents in order to make ends meet. I am also really interested in distributivism. Have you read Chesterton on the topic? I haven’t but I’d like to. Let me know what you’re reading and what you recommend :)

      • LMM says

        Not any complete books yet – I’ve been cheating! The Distributist Review online has a collection of Chesterton’s essays on the topic, and lots of other good backroungd materials – it’s where I’m starting. It’s heavy stuff, but important, I think.

        • Haley says

          I went to their web site and already found an article I adored! Thanks, LMM. I’ll need to start on Chesterton’s essays next :)

  3. says

    Haley,
    This is wonderful! I quit my job in May to be a SAHM, but my contract only just ended, so I only just stopped getting paid. This hasn’t hit me yet but our budget isn’t strained yet. When our budget gets strained in the future, I know thoughts about money and salary will creep into my mind. I appreciate you speaking out in a way to say that while a paycheck doesn’t come from being a mom, there is immense value to be had from being at home.
    Thanks a lot for the quotes too. Very inspiring for building a meaningful family instead of a constantly-connected family.
    Leah

  4. says

    So true! These points are so true! Whenever I feel doubts about staying at home with my children, or guilty for not even really wanting outside work now or down the line, I always return to a strong conviction that there really is nothing more important or worth my time. We are so conditioned to thinking worth and importance must have a monetary value, and I find even in some of my good mom friends that there is a need for outside prestige that is somehow much greater than the satisfaction of caring and building ones own home. it is so difficult to reorient our perspectives in our culture.

    • Haley says

      Yes, Christy! It’s so hard to change our mindset and give up our need for “outside prestige.” At least it is for me! I was thinking about you this morning, sweet friend :) Hope you’re well.

  5. Monica says

    Hi haley,

    This is a beautiful post. I am very intrigued by this Wendell Berry author! I have never heard of him before & am eager to look him up – I am a liberal arts grad and have been looking for some new books to dove into lately! Any suggested works by Mr. berry to start?

    • Haley says

      Thank you, Monica! He is awesome. For novels I would recommend Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter. His novels are worth reading but sometimes lack sublety (the inner monologues start to sound a little like essays). I started by reading a collection of essays called “The Art of the Commonplace.” The first essay in the collection is a little slow but then it gets going. “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” is probably my favorite ever but so many in that collection are amazing. My husband is the poet of the family so I’ll have to ask him which collection of poetry is his favorite. He’s great! I hope you enjoy some if his works!

      • says

        Agreed, Haley! He’s an amazing essayist, a good poet, and a decent novelist. or maybe a good novelist and decent poet. Regardless, I love him.

        I feel like his words on the home as a place of production apply to those of us who are childless as well. It was via inspiration from Mr. Berry that my husband and I have worked so hard at whittling down our dependence on outside income and have increased our production within the home. Justin still, by far, surpasses my income level, but I do my best to make our home a place of production (as it always used to be generations ago) and not just a place of consumption and idleness.

        While we have no children yet, I wholeheartedly hope that I have the opportunity to stay at home with my future kiddo, and if so, Mr. Berry’s views will continue to inspire and encourage me that I’ll be doing a good thing. good post.

        • Haley says

          This is a great point, Jessica. A friend of mine who is pregnant for the first time was talking about how centering their lives around the home and decreasing outside work hours, etc. is not only makes financial sense (cooking at home saves money they would spend on eating out if she was working more) but also allows her the freedom to help friends and neighbors and be part of the community. Slow living is a good thing. And I love how Berry emphasizes homemaking as a valuable endeavor for women AND men.

  6. says

    A great essay Haley, and I’m so glad to read more like this having just come off a reading stint of Mr. Berry and books like “Radical Homemakers”.

    It’s true there’s no paycheck for motherhood no matter if you bring in a few (or more than a few dollars) on the side! It’s why I like to think of the two as complete separate entities – I AM a Mother, but I just happen to work at a job that offers a financial contribution and I do that job because, for my own reasons and family life, that job enables me to be a better Mother at this point in my life.

    I think the point that the idea of the home becoming a place of production rather than consumption really helps drive this idea home. My home is the place where an endless stream of “creations” take place and those creations, whether it’s a good meal, a cuddly bedtime story or an number of those “drudgeries”, require me to be an active and engaged member of my family and society at large. This “active and engaged” type of life leaves very little room for boredom and produces a very tangible sense of accomplishment each day.

    • Haley says

      I loved Radical Homemakers, too, Molly. And your point about making the home a place of production rather than consumption is key. I had never thought about that until reading Berry. When the home is a place of production, there’s not so much need to be “entertained.” You create your own entertainment!

  7. says

    What an excellent post! I love how you have chosen to proactively change your thinking about motherhood, instead of just hoping that others will step up to validate its importance. I too gave up my professional career to stay home with my Little Ones, and while I wouldn’t ever change that decision, I do go through phases where I feel “unproductive.” Thank you again for this great reminder of how important it is to be home.

    I also appreciate the point about changing home into a place of production instead of consumption. My hubby and I are slowly changing our lifestyle to be more simple and family-centered, and it is nice to know we aren’t the only ones!

    • Haley says

      Thank you, Amanda! I really think our generation is swinging back to a more family-centered lifestyle and I’m glad to have friends on the journey :)

  8. says

    Thanks so much for joining us in The Parent ‘Hood this week. Great thoughts here. I struggle, too, with wondering if I’m doing enough/holding up my end of my partnership with my husband. Honestly (and I know it’s crass because as you’re pointing out here, it’s NOT all about where the money comes from, it’s about a fully-integrated partnership that gets ALL of the important stuff done together) I once did research to figure out what we would pay others to do all of the work I do at home. In 2003, the total was over $75k, and that was if we hired unexperienced, non-certified providers to do it all. I have to admit that even though I KNEW what I do has value untold for my family, it was also nice to see the bottom line, as it were.

    • Haley says

      Thank you, Megan! The link-up was so fun. Have you read “Radical Homemakers”? Your thoughts about the huge financial contribution that you’re bringing to your home and family reminded me of that book. I think that’s a great point. Even something as simple as having time to cook a meal does have monetary value as well (because otherwise, you’d have to eat out, etc). Thanks for stopping by! :)

  9. Meg Embry says

    Haley,

    Just wanted to check in and thank you for this. I’m gearing up to be home with firstbaby and having a difficult time making the mental/pride shift required to do it gracefully. And I don’t even like my job that much! It takes strength to come up against popular assumptions about what is valuable and admirable and useful and say, “nope. bullshit.”

    • Haley says

      You’re gonna be such a great mom, Meg. Can’t wait to see pics of your little one when he/she arrives. Did you find out the gender?!

  10. Mary says

    I read this before, but I’m so happy you posted it again. I really needed to hear it today, as the New Year begins. I’ve been a SAHM for almost a year now, after working full time as a staff nurse for 12 years at a large hospital. We had 4 children while I was working, and my husband completed an accelerated master’s degree in there as well. I’m so very grateful for the opportunity to be home, but I find myself floundering. The lack of schedule and accountability is maddening, and I’ve had a really hard time adjusting to the “drudgery” of housework after feeling like I was making such a big difference as a nurse. I know I’m still the same intelligent, hard working woman, but I no longer get the glowing reviews and admiration from my co-workers, and I never realized how much I depended on that for my self esteem. Staying home is what I’m called to do, and I’m so happy to not feel pulled in 2 directions, but it is much harder than I ever imagined. Thanks for the encouragement as I begin this new year with hope and expectation of baby #5 due in June!

    • Haley says

      It wasn’t an easy transition for me either. I am SUCH a people pleaser and thrive on affirmation. So, a vocation that doesn’t include grades or performance reviews is difficult for me. It’s also been hard to develop skills that I always ignored while I was pursuing academics and career such as cooking and maintaining a home. Looking back on the day a realizing that I wasn’t very good at being a SAHM that day is torturous to a girl that never got a B in her life and knew just how to succeed at her various endeavors pre-motherhood. The so-called “drudgery” of housekeeping is certainly my road to holiness and just what I need to learn to do my work out of love and not for applause. And it becomes more significant and fulfilling with each passing week. Bless you as you wait for the arrival of your newest little one! You’re probably only a week or two behind me (I’m 20 weeks.)

      • Mary says

        You’re right, about so many things! Humility is something that I must work on daily, and the vocation of full time motherhood is just what I need to help me on my journey. Doing things for love, not praise, is what God is calling all of us to do. The quote from Chesterton has been a favorite of mine since I read it in the book “Holiness for Housewives and Other Working Women” by Hubert Van Zeller. I should probably print it out and place it in view of my kitchen sink!

        As far as the pregnancy is concerned, I’m 16 weeks and hoping the nausea and vomiting end soon! I truly feel for you. In the meantime, I will be grateful that I have a healthy pregnancy for the fifth time. I am truly blessed.

  11. Emma says

    I just read this post for the first time and it is great timing. I have two wonderful toddlers (18 month old twins) and just found out that I’m expecting again (a big surprise for us). I had always worked before our twins were born and continue to now as well but I’m worried that when our third gets here I won’t be able to at all. I’m not that far along so we haven’t told anyone our news yet but sadly I’m not looking forward to it. Because I have twins most people assume I am “done” and I’m worried that I will mostly get a negative reaction from people. Plus, I’m already very nervous about how I’m going to handle three babies under three :/ How do you handle daily life with three children? Did you find it was much different then 2?

    • Haley says

      Congratulations on your pregnancy, Emma! Here’s what I think: moms of twins are rock stars! You’ve totally got this. Everybody’s experience as a mom is different but for me, the transition from 0 kids to 1 kid was incredibly difficult (I can only imagine going from 0 to 2!!!) but transitioning from 1-2 and 2-3 has been far easier. Adding a newborn to the mix is always challenging, of course, but I think after mothering twins you are going to be a bonafide baby expert by the time baby #3 comes around. Really the hardest thing is getting everyone in and out of the car, but it’s getting easier now. I say, wear that baby in a sling or ergo or whatever kind of baby carrier/wrap you like best so you have two hands to wrangle those little toddlers and you will do awesome. I think it’s the twins that will be exhausting you far more than the newborn. (At least that’s the way it is around here, haha). Honestly, I’m just so amazed by families that can handle twins. And if you ever want some twin blog reading to do, check out my friend Abbey’s blog “Surviving Our Blessings.” She has a 4-year-old and twin toddlers and she is super sweet and honest and great and would be happy to give you any ‘mama of twins plus one’ advice. I guess for me, becoming a parent was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But after getting used to having one, it’s been like, “what’s one more? a bit more noise? a bit more mess? it’s already insanely noisy and messy in here so bring it on!” :) I hope you have a super easy pregnancy so you can keep up with your little twinsies! Pregnancy is always so much harder than newborn care. <3

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