Parenting is a job. The hardest job one can have. No wonder parents, who are working so hard, tell kids that school is their job. Once the kids grow up, of course, their job will be their job. If they lose it, then looking for a job will become their full-time job. And if they decided to get married, that will be a job, too.
In fact, life itself is hard work, though perhaps not as challenging as death. As Steve Jobs’s sister Mona Simpson claimed in a eulogy, “Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.”
Americans struggle to describe worthwhile, long-term activities without turning them into jobs. We can’t imagine a good life that’s free from workplace logic. This narrow moral vocabulary makes our lives worse: more stressful, more guilt-ridden, and less able to appreciate anything that’s not work. It also reflects and reinforces a culture in which citizens are dependent on, indeed at the mercy of, their employers. That’s why we need a new, more expansive lexicon to describe the dominant responsibilities—not to mention the neglected pleasures—of our lives.
The job of motherhood is surely the most fraught of the job metaphors, which novelist Karen Rinaldi interrogated recently after her mother said to her, “Motherhood, it’s the hardest job in the world. All sacrifice!” Rinaldi disagreed. “When we cling to the idea of motherhood as sacrifice, what we really sacrifice is our sense of self, as if it is the price we pay for having children,” she wrote in The New York Times. “Motherhood is not a sacrifice, but a privilege—one that many of us choose selfishly.”
Rinaldi’s critique could have gone further. When workforce logic pervades parenthood, then child-rearing takes on the competitiveness and status-seeking of professional culture. We shame mothers who don’t perform “best practices” like breastfeeding or initiating skin-to-skin contact with their child within seconds of birth. And because raising kids is considered a job, we judge married couples who choose not have any; they’re shirking their work responsibilities, after all.
In America, doing work of any kind, no matter its usefulness, is seen as inherently more worthwhile than the alternative. Even Rinaldi succumbs to this mentality, writing, “Raising a family is hard work, but so is every other meaningful aspect of our lives.” In fact, there many meaningful aspects of life that are not hard work, notably leisure. But in America, leisure is defined solely by its relationship to a job. Even those who rave on Monday morning about having done nothing over the weekend (“I just vegged out”) are implying they worked so hard as to need a break, and at the same time are acknowledging the indulgence of inactivity.
This cultural norm—that it’s good and important to be busy—filters down to our children. We overload with homework and assess against state-mandated benchmarks. When they do well, we praise them with the ubiquitous, “Good job!” When they do poorly, we implore, “Work harder!” It’s no surprise, then, that when they get to college they focus joylessly on careerism rather than intellectual development. The college students I taught unanimously claimed that school was their job. Many thought that any courses outside of their professional interest were a waste of time.
It’s true that words like “job” and “work” have multiple meanings. To tell a child, offhandedly, that “cleaning up Legos is a thankless job” might not indicate that you live in a moral void. But all of those common terms point in the same direction. Their pervasiveness echoes and helps perpetuate the message in American culture that you exist to work. It’s a mindset that heaps guilt on the unemployed and disabled, discourages workers from taking vacation, and sets an absurd expectation that childbirth be minimally disruptive to work.
The job metaphor isn’t even very apt, because the dissimilarities between something like parenting and a job are much greater than the similarities. As Rinaldi noted, “In a job, an employer pays for services an employee agrees to perform. And there is a boss to whom the employee reports. In the case of parenting, who would that be?” Maybe we talk about parenting and marriage and school in terms of work because they demand effort. As Rinaldi wrote about motherhood, “No one will deny that there is exhaustion, fear and tedium.” It’s hard. But it’s also true that video games are hard. Making pottery is hard. Golf is hard. Difficulty alone isn’t enough for something to count as work.
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.