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February 05, 2009

The Most Important Job in the World That Is Worth $0

Carrie If you are a stay-at-home mother, you have heard this comment a million times: "You're doing the most important job in the world."

That assurance always rubs me a little raw. I know my job is important. Telling me so assumes that I have an inferiority complex about my role at this point in my life. If you met President Obama or the CEO of a major corporation, would you assure them that their jobs are very important?

Recently I read two things that helped me appreciate how truly undervalued parenting is in modern society. One is an expose on fraud and loopholes in the Welfare to Work program in Chicago's neighbor to the north -- Wisconsin. The other is a new report on the low quality of childhood in modern society, a British Christian group's indictment of "the belief among adults that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of their own life, rather than contribute to the good of others."

The first article reports that some Wisconsin mothers have figured out a loophole in the Wisconsin Works program, which subsidizes day care to encourage poor parents to enter the paid workforce. Under the program rules, you can receive childcare subsidies of you work just about any job -- including working as a childcare provider yourself. And there is nothing to stop you from enrolling your own children at the daycare where you work.

Sure enough, three sisters figured out that they could hire one another as daycare providers, swapping care of the 17 children they had among them, and get paid by the state. Other Wisconsin parents engaged in outright fraud, claiming they worked for non-existent businesses or cooperating with fraudulent daycare providers.

What made me shake my head when I read this was not that some people are dishonest -- that will happen anytime there is free money to be had and the rules are shoddily written and loosely enforced. What gets me about this story is that no one finds it ironic that the state is willing to pay anyone to take care of children -- anyone, that is, EXCEPT the children's parents. It's a vivid example of the paradox cited by Ann Crittenden in The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued -- caring for other people's children is considered work and a part of the economy, while caring for your own children, supposedly the world's most important job, is considered economically valueless. Worse than that, if you are of a certain class, it is considered sitting on your butt and collecting Welfare checks.

How foreign to our culture is the idea that parenting one's own children is a real job? Try suggesting that Wisconsin amend its program to pay one parent in each household to stay home with his or her own children, if that's what the family prefers. Of course, that would be a return to traditional Welfare, just what Wisconsin's program was designed to eliminate.

I know, I know -- the goal of Wisconsin Works and others like it is to help poor mothers get some work experience and self esteem, better their families' lives and break the cycle of dependency on state aid. Call me crazy, but I just think that the same money could also help families have better lives if it helped parents be there for their kids. I also think that self esteem could also be improved by informing poor mothers that they are already doing an esteem-worthy job, and backing that statement up with a paycheck.

I know. Pinko.

Then there's the British report, other tidbit that got me thinking about undervalued parenting. While the report doesn't blame all of the ills of today's childhood on parents who work too much, it does point out that kids today spend far too much time alone. Parental absence, the report asserts, leads to more hours exposed to media and its character-assaulting commercial messages, not to mention earlier sexual activity due to increased privacy.*

I'm not sure whether the religious organization that released this report has an agenda, like (oh, just pulling this out of a hat) attacking working mothers. But personally, I choose to see its findings as a real validation of the value of the job of parent, a job held by both fathers and mothers. I agree that parents all over the industrialized world are spending, on average, too much time away from their children, driven to work too much by a consumerist culture gone mad.

If anything good can come out of our current economic crisis, maybe it will be parents who are forced to cut back on hours or lose their jobs altogether realizing how little -- in terms of material things -- children really need to flourish. And how much they really need of us.

* The assertion that kids are losing their virginity younger is contradicted by a Lancet study that says sexual activity begins in the teen years across the globe and that the age of onset appears steady over time.

This is an original post to Chicago Moms Blog. When Carrie Kirby's not decrying injustice, she blogs at My Funny, Funny Family and Shoplifting With Permission. Photo by b0r0da via Creative Commons.

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