Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Reclaiming Motherhood: What is the Value of a Mother?

In our society, everything has a price. A quick google of the question, 'What is the value of a mother?', brings up a whole host of articles, all of which suggest just how much money it would take to employ someone to complete the tasks that a mother does for free. This UK article puts the price at £37000 per annum for a mother's 71 hour week, while a US article gives the figure at $117,856 for a stay at home mum.

Women often have to think in these terms of profit and loss when deciding whether to return to work. How much will I earn from my job? What will the cost of the nursery / childminder be? What will I actually end up with? Talking with one stay at home mother today, she told me that after many calculations she realised that if she returned to work and placed her children in childcare, in financial terms she would 'break even'. Many women face a similar scenario, but some return to work nevertheless, feeling that there is a gain for them in continuing with their career path, or a value in the chance to return to their pre-motherhood roles and escape the non-stop struggle of childcare.

As women make these calculations, there are some societal assumptions that often go unquestioned. One is that a happy mother equals a happy child. Mothers are urged to consider their own needs first in order to be able to be better placed to care for their children, and rarely, if ever, is this equation offered the other way around: a happy child equals a happy mother. The second assumption is that a baby or child's time spent at a childminder or nursery is of equal value to time spent with a mother. In some cases, there is even a suggestion that time at nursery has a greater value than time at home, since at nursery a child is cared for by 'professionals' - experts who will offer a complete program of activities and stimulation that a mother could never compete with.

Is this the case? Or is care by a mother different, and in some way special? What does a mother offer - if anything - that cannot be reproduced, replicated, or simulated? Of course, there is a whole spectrum of ways in which children can - and are - being cared for. From full time nursery at an early age, to being looked after by family friends, to stay-at-home dads, each of these and many other options offer something unique to a child's development. Each has value, and it is not perhaps fashionable to make comparisons between them, for fear of political incorrectness or causing offence. But if we wish to reclaim motherhood, and restore self esteem and a sense of worth to mothers, perhaps we need to ask - can anyone nurture a child and raise them with similar effect, or is there something special about a mother, something better, something, perhaps, that even money cannot buy?

Our society that looks for value and price also looks for evidence. The rapidly advancing field of neuropsychology is offering more and more information about the impact that love and nurture can make on the developing brain. It's wonderful stuff, but is it always helpful? The current debate about the practice of 'sleep training' or 'crying it out' is filled with people referring to research regarding the effect of the stress hormone cortisol on a baby's neurological development and claiming that leaving a baby to cry herself to sleep causes - or does not cause - brain damage. But getting caught up in the cortisol argument is a red herring, because the real point about 'crying it out' is that it is highly likely to be damaging in ways that we cannot measure, and that we might never be able to measure. It damages trust, it damages mother-infant attachment, it damages an adult's hazy but important sense of always having been lovingly responded to as a baby. Some aspects of the human experience are unquantifiable. Whilst science is great, and is currently offering us reassurance that much of what we all knew instinctively may well actually be true, it cannot, as Coleridge put it, 'unweave a rainbow': there will always be unanswered questions, gut feelings and mystery.

When we ask, 'What is the value of a mother?', it is automatically assumed that we mean her monetary value. If we dare to assert that her care for her children is better than anyone else can offer, that she is 'worth' more than a childminder, nursery worker or even a father, we must explain why this is, and whatsmore, our theory and explanation must be evidence based. But what if the value of a mother is something that also cannot be measured? Maybe it's just not possible to even put into words the softness, nurture, responsiveness and unconditional love that she provides, let alone quantify this with any hard scientific evidence. Perhaps one day each soothed bump, each night-time nursing session, each absent minded kiss to the top of the head will be broken down and measured for it's minutely detailed positive impact on the developing brain. Perhaps a generation of children who have spent less time with their mothers than any other people who have ever lived on the planet will grow up and tell us or show us what they missed. For now, we must try to reclaim motherhood as a prized state whilst at the same time knowing that it cannot be given a value by an economist, a psychologist - indeed anyone at all - except perhaps our children.

This is the second of two posts on the subject of reclaiming motherhood. You can read the first by clicking here: Reclaiming Motherhood: When Staying At Home Means Having It All



  1. Such a gentle, positive piece. Thanks x

  2. Well said - and if I might say so, much of the argument applies to fatherhood too. We can't measure these things correctly in monetary terms.

    1. I do so agree Mark and would love to write something about fatherhood at some point x

  3. Well written. I enjoyed both pieces and as another Mom who finds herself standing alone on the dance floor, I can relate

  4. Thank you for these, very affirming, I can really relate. Have bookmarked to remind myself why I've chosen to stay at home. Or when someone remarks how confident my 18 month old is 'despite' not having been left at nursery. Sigh. Love the blog.