Motherhood vital, full-time job

"All Mothers Are Working Mothers," reads the T-shirt, above the figure of a mother duck leading her brood. A nice turn of phrase, it points out a fact that deserves more attention than it gets these days; namely, that full-time motherhood is a demanding, challenging, and critically important profession deserving of society's respect.

First, consider the job description. What must a full-time mother do to do her job well? Assuming the father is not also at home full-time (a reasonable enough assumption), the mother has primary responsibility for the upbringing of her children. Think for a moment about what an immense duty this is, to be entrusted with molding an entire human life, or several. No one is in a position to do greater good in those lives (or greater harm; hence the great responsibility).

A few examples: A full-time mother should guide emotional development, in everything from fear to heartbreak to wonder. She must instill a love of learning and make certain her charges keep learning as long as they are with her. (When I was a baby, my mother used to tape index cards to household objects with the objects' names on the cards. Thanks to her, I could read a newspaper at age two.)

A good mother must also teach right from wrong, teach children how to get along with others, provide guidance and counsel even after her children are grown. Most significantly, though, a mother should love her children, creating and nurturing deep emotional bonds, instilling a sense of security and self-worth. This is what makes a full-time mother more than a teacher and much more important.

Of course, this is not to say that fathers are optional extras. A good father is every bit as important as a good mother. Also, one could argue that a stay-at-home father could do all the above as well, which in some cases is true. Nor am I addressing whether either parent ought to stay at home. I am personally convinced that one parent should, and that women, on average, do a much better job in that role, but these are entirely separate issues to discuss.

The point here is that the above, the merest beginning of the full job description, makes it clear to me that a woman who chooses to devote her full time to the careful rearing of her children deserves as much respect as she would in any other career. It is no waste of time or talent, but an endeavor worthy of the best she has to give.

There, is, however, an important caveat here. The trouble with full-time motherhood is that it doesn't pay the bills, which means the father takes that responsibility. In a good marriage, this division of labor has the blessing of husband and wife and is therefore not a problem. But if the husband decides to leave the wife, or starts abusing her or the kids (emotionally or physically or both), or even if he simply gets run over by a train, the woman could be caught in a tight spot, from which she must be able to escape.

One way to guard against such misfortune is to be very careful whom you marry, and not to marry before, say, age 22 or so. Equally important is another principle. I strongly believe that every woman (and every man, for that matter) should be capable of indefinite self-support if necessary. In much the same way as an aspiring actor had better be able to wait tables or teach math just in case, a woman who chooses to stay at home with her children needs to have a fallback profession, skill, or trade.

To my mind, that means education beyond high school. It may not mean college; I don't think college is for all men or all women. But if every woman has a marketable skill dental hygiene (like my mother), computer programming, teaching, an M.D., whatever floats her boat then she can make the full-time-mother decision with far less worry. Obtaining that skill and then choosing to raise the kids at home is no waste of the skill. The one is necessary for the security of the other.

Of course, none of this addresses whether full-time motherhood is best for families. In a future column I hope to show that this is so. But at the very least, full-time motherhood should be known for what it is: an ancient and honorable profession.

John Keisling was brought up by a full-time mother. He is a math Ph.D. candidate whose column appears Wednesdays.

Read Next Article