ETA (4/19/2012): "A group of politicians led by Rep. Pete Stark of California are taking Mitt Romney at his word—that “all moms are working moms”—and plan to introduce an act that would allow mothers receiving welfare support to count their childrearing duties as the required “work activity” until the child turns 4." from Slate.com. THAT'S more like what I'm talking about (not that it has a chance in hell since certain powerful people still think that poor mothers are automatically evil and only the wealthy are entitled to parenthood.)
It was a lousy statement that produced a painfully shallow and moth-eaten debate revealing a cultural presumption that "real" work is work outside of the home. Even working mothers who make that sort of a statement -- my own was among them -- know that is not true. I'm not defending that statement, nor anyone who makes it. Instead, I'm interested in the reasons that such a statement exists in the first place.
You see, I think that the idea that "real work" exists outside of the home comes from our capitalist society in which "work" means "wage labor," or labor that has a market value. Most people who go on and on about the nobility of motherhood will never think of motherhood those types of terms. They cannot understand the work that mothers do as labor that has a market value. They assume mother-work is just something that women (and a few men) do, and all of its rewards are --- well, I'm not a mother and I suppose the added value varies with each woman and each child. Still, those rewards are much like enjoying your waged or salaried job, or having great colleagues at your salaried job, or having good benefits, and so forth. Here, we are talking about the hard, cold cash-value of the work women do in sustaining families. That work has a market value, and in our capitalist world, market value has become the way that our society demonstrates real respect for the work that people do.
We know that a mother's work has a market value because people pay other people to do it. Cooking, cleaning, childcare, accounting, time-management, even grocery shopping -- heck, go back far enough and you see that the household production done by housewives in the preindustrial era, such as sewing, spinning, weaving, gardening, are now done outside of the home and by people who are paid for the work. You can even see welfare as part of this continuum (and I might be mistaken, but wasn't that a vestige of Progressivism that found its way into the New Deal?). The government pays women to be mothers.
Mother-work also has a value in the wages or salary, retirement benefits, and earning potential lost by women who leave the waged workforce to stay at home. They might never recover those losses, either. Yet, the same people who go on and on about motherhood being the most noble and important work in the world use the hit that women take to their earning power when they leave the workforce to do that work as an excuse to oppose laws for equal pay.
When I taught women's studies and when I sat in on a women's studies class, even the most ardent feminists in the class had a very difficult time making the leap from seeing motherhood as an emotional relationship done as part of the fulfillment of nature. Sure, they admitted it was work, but they didn't see it as having any more monetary value than what the wage earner of the family (or the welfare office) could afford to provide for the family. One student said, "well, my mom stayed at home and her pay was that my father put a roof over our heads." Perhaps, but then again, if you see the roof as pay, then you have assigned a financial value to your mother's work.
Underneath this hollow rhetoric (and privilege) of the "mommy wars" lies a vicious and literal devaluing of mother-work. This devaluing isn't done so much by the people who cannot make a better argument than "not working at a real job" or "not worked a day in her life," as by the people who would rather grant verbal gold stars than actually recognize mother-work as work. This is a damn society and we are all in it together whether we like it or not -- no "love it or leave it" bullshit because, ultimately, we live on the same choking planet -- and the work that people do to sustain that society should be valued. Value comes not through hollow rhetoric but through action. Action comes through better compensation, equal compensation, mere compensation, through better welfare programs, better access to reproductive choices, better parental leave programs, better any program that support working parents in caring for families -- even if they must all be supported by higher taxes (especially on the wealthiest people or entities).
Furthermore, since the Menz sometimes can't see women's issues as human issues unless they are directly hurt by malicious policies or benefit by supportive ones, men can do much of this mother-work, too. (When they do, some often want a trophy and a cookie, despite the fact that the woman doing the same work don't get trophies and cookies.) If mother-work became not-gender-specific-work, then perhaps it might receive more actual respect and be accorded actual importance beyond a pissing match between two political parties who, when pushed to actually do something real, tell us yet again to wait.
Also, I am not a mother, but this affects me because I live in this society, because I teach, but mostly because I am a woman. As a woman, I am affected by the presumption that my work, whatever work that may be, is compromised by my alleged bioglogical clock. I am affected by the presumption that, even without children, I should somehow be motherly and not tap into any mommy-issues. I am affected by this devaluation because it lies at the bottom of all presumptions about women at work -- whatever work that we do, whether it involve raising children or not -- in which their labor is voluntary, ancillary, and supportive rather than necessary, central and supported.