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Mothers and Moms

Philip Cohen asks, “Why are mothers becoming moms?” These aren’t just two words for the same thing: in political terms “mother” is merely descriptive while “mom” is more positive. Indeed, we speak of “mom and apple pie” as unquestionable American icons.

Cohen points out that motherhood is sometimes but not always respected in political discourse:

On the one hand, both President Obama and pundit Hilary Rosen have now called motherhood the world’s hardest job. And with the Romneys flopping onto the all-mothers-work bandwagon, it appears we’re reaching a rare rhetorical consensus.

On the other hand, the majority in both major political parties agrees that poor single mothers and their children need one thing above all – a (real) job, one that provides the “dignity of an honest day’s work.” For welfare purposes, taking care of children is not only not the toughest job in the world, it is more akin to nothing at all. When Bill Clinton’s endorsed welfare-to-work he famously declared: “The days of something for nothing are over.” President Obama and Mitt Romney both support that welfare reform.

Interesting point: it’s ok to be a “working mother” or a “stay-at-home mom,” but you’re not supposed to say “working mom” (as that implies that those stay-at-home moms aren’t working), and it’s not so good to be a “stay-at-home mother” (then you don’t have the “dignity of an honest day’s work”).

P.S. Cohen writes:

Parenthood won’t get the respect it deserves – including men embracing it in more equal numbers – until the monetary reward it draws matches the rhetoric of its symbolic value.

Maybe so, but it’s not obvious to me. Consider soldiers: they get a lot of respect even though they don’t get paid well. [I was sloppy on that one; see Joseph’s comment.] Maybe my confusion about this quote is that I don’t understand the distinction between “respect” and “symbolic value.”

P.P.S. Joseph Delaney adds more:

Domestic work is extremely challenging to fit into our framework of how we define productive activity. It is clear that domestic work is essential to the creation of the next generation of people and that it is not easy labor. The idea that dignity can only come from paid employment rather than worthwhile work is perverse.

I [Delaney] would consider a Buddhist monk, for example, to have plenty of dignity even if their vocation never (ever) results in paid employment.

Another example would be those old-time rabbis who would sit around arguing about the Bible while their wives were busy chasing the kids, scrubbing the laundry, etc. The modern equivalent would be sitting on the couch and watching sports of tv, I suppose. It’s not paid employment but it’s essential to society.


  1. Mayo says:

    Watching sports on TV is essential to society?

  2. I agree, please clarify what you meant in the last paragraph. I think you mean that the work done by the mothers while either the Rabbis or the couch potatoes are “goofing off” is essential to society, more essential in some ways than the “paid work” that the males are getting political “credit” for. But the wording doesn’t make your point unambiguous.

  3. Philip Cohen says:

    Thanks. Regarding the confusion, it’s not “symbolic value,” but “rhetoric of its symbolic value.” Respect follows from compensation that matches rhetoric, I reckon.

    Elsewhere, Nancy Folbre at Economix recently reported an estimate that unpaid housework and carework create value equivalent to 15% of GDP.

  4. Thomas says:

    It’s interesting. Romney (and I guess Obama and Clinton) are saying that motherhood is dignified work as long as you have a husband to “pay” you for it. If you don’t have such a husband, there is no dignity in the work of being a mother. (I’m basically just riffing on Mathew Yglesias’s piece in Slate.)

  5. Mark Palko says:

    I’ll admit a conflict of interest here, but I’d recommend checking out the rest of Joseph’s post at

  6. Entsophy says:

    Also, the line about solders not getting paid well is very dated. This hasn’t really been true for 20 years or more. While my Dad made all of $1,4000 for the year he vacationed in Vietnam in 1969 (including danger pay), I had 22 year old Marines in 2008 who received $84,000 bonuses for a 6 year reenlistment(tax free since they were in Iraq at the time). That’s bonus pay, not regular pay, for some one with a high school degree.

    I believe the military estimates that no more than about 5% of those who leave the military before retirement will initially receive higher total compensation. When they looked at how many reservists had lower total compensation when called to active duty it turned out that most were making more.

    You know things are bad when junior enlisted Marines regularly drink Starbucks, play golf and talk about their stock market performance (oddly none of that seems to have affected their performance – Marines today are more lethal on the battlefield than they’ve ever been in the past).

  7. Entsophy says:

    I meant $1,400 not “$1,4000”. A little over $100/month

  8. Scott says:

    “those old-time rabbis who would sit around arguing about the Bible while their wives were busy chasing the kids, scrubbing the laundry, etc.” The example set by those rabbis did lasting damage. Even unto the third, and fourth generation, many of their descendants, instead of doing useful work, devoted their energy to scholarship, and now have tenure.

    • Andrew says:


      The story goes that my great-grandfather went around saying he was a rabbi, but nobody believed him. Apparently lots of these guys would say they were a rabbi back in the old country, cos who could check?

      • Scott says:

        My own great-grandfather was also a hedge-rabbi. Thank goodness you and I live in a modern, civilized country, where we can prove our status with a piece of paper.

  9. Steve Sailer says:

    “Watching sports on TV is essential to society?”

    No, but studying baseball statistics clearly is.