Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is Motherhood the "Hardest Job in the World"?

I'm about to say something that I'm sure is going to step on some toes. I'm sorry, but this is important to me. If you want to tell me I'm wrong, feel free, but please hear me out first.

I just watched the P&G ad for the London 2012 Olympics.

There's a lot to like here. The way that the stories traverse both time and space in such a short window is impressive. The music and sparse use of dialogue are striking. The emotions come across as sincere, and all those moms watching their babies grow into successful world champions made me tear up. 

At the end, the commercial declares "The hardest job in the world, is the best job in the world. Thank you, Mom."

I want to disclaim that I'm not criticizing this commercial, per se. (Side note: I am going to criticize the comma between "Thank you" and "Mom," which is either unnecessary or indicates that "Mom" is thanking us for giving her the opportunity to do the hardest job in the world--a totally different message from thanking Mom for doing it. Then again, the comma between "world" and "is" is also unnecessary). In fact, I think that this is a more positive display of the "hardest job in the world" trope than just about any other one I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot. They pop up on social media feeds pretty often, and I'm sure you've seen images like this one:

We've also seen this theme emerge in the political Mommy Wars after the Rosen-Romney dust-up. Mitt Romney himself said, "There is no tougher job than being a mom." [Edit: The source I read wrongly attributed this to Romney, but it was Obama who said that line. Romney said "all mothers are working mothers" and supporters of his campaign have been spreading the message that mothering is the hardest job following Rosen's comments].

The thing that bothers me is that this message is so positive that we're slow to question its true impact. Mothers often feel that the work they do (and it's a lot of work) isn't valued. This message seems to answer that call and give credit where credit is due. But does it really? What's at stake by positioning motherhood as the "hardest job in the world," and is it worth the price?

The impact that the rhetorical construction of mothering as the "hardest job in the world" has on parenting is three-fold: 1) It sets up a definition of motherhood that alienates women who don't fit those narrow confinements. 2) It creates a standard of "best" that leaves mothers constantly striving to do better with no hope of being satisfied with their performances. 3) It causes defensiveness that distracts us from collaboration and policy-level advocacy. 


At the conference I attended recently, I saw presentations about "Other Mothers" that looked at the portrayal of non-traditional mothers in pop culture. I heard from two single mothers, one who was also a lesbian. Both women talked honestly and passionately about the assumptions made about their lives and feeling like they were not fairly represented in everything from parenting books to doctor's offices. 

In particular, one of the single mothers mentioned how frustrated she is with the "I don't know how you do it!" exclamations. (One I've been guilty of myself). She explained that these well-meaning exclamations make her feel isolated and alien. She said "I do it just like everyone else does it." In short, her life is not a spectacle, but a life, a story like any other story. 

And single mother stigma runs deep.  It got me thinking about that interracial marriage Pew poll I blogged about a while back. One of the questions was about the social acceptability of interracial marriage compared to other hypothetical family arrangements. Respondents got to rate whether they thought each arrangement was a "good thing" or a "bad thing" for society. By an overwhelming margin, more people found "single women having children" to be the arrangement that was worst for society (69%).

Part of the problem is that defining mothering as "the hardest job in the world" means that we have to define it as a "job," and a job comes with very specific parameters. Framing mothering as a job means that we see mothers in narrow definitions. This pushes mothers that don't fit within that definition to the margins. They are othered by our rhetoric. If a married woman who has financial support from a husband taking care of a household does "the hardest job in the world," then we set single mothers up for failure. We may sympathize with them, pity them, or even admire them, but we first other them. This becomes true of any other mother who doesn't fit within those narrow confinements as well. 

"Best" is Not Always Best 

I started thinking about this in the context of the "Breast is Best" campaign.  A well-meaning campaign on all fronts, it promotes breastfeeding and is based on the well-documented benefits of breast milk. However, by using the word "best," the campaign also allows formula companies to capitalize on it. 

As Diane Wiessinger explains in "Watch Your Language!" the term "best" is problematic:
Best possible, ideal, optimal, perfect. Are you the best possible parent? Is your home life ideal? Do you provide optimal meals? Of course not. Those are admirable goals, not minimum standards. 
As Dou-la-la examines in this Mad Men-inspired parody, it has marketing potential for a formula company:
We focus the whole campaign on helping women navigate the terrible, perilous, grim experience that breastfeeding is likely to be. We mention every single thing we can think of: Sleep deprivation, slow weight gain, cracked and bloody nipples, [PETE winces] how hard it is to nurse in public and how hard it is to have to stay home instead, and on and on. We’re the good guys, we’re just trying to help – it’s not our fault that breastfeeding is so difficult and unpleasant. We look altruistic and supportive – we’re not trying to get women not to breastfeed, we’re just here to support them in case it doesn’t work out.
"Best" is not always the realistic goal; it's the ultimate result. Our goals usually fall somewhere short of "best." When we set up a standard as "best," we're actually moving that standard beyond the range of "normal," which is--biologically and culturally speaking--where breastfeeding should actually be. 

So, if the job of mom is the "hardest" and "best" job out there, what does that mean? That means that the standards for this "job" are likely unreachable. In order to achieve the standard of "best," you must also achieve the standard of "hardest."

As Meghan Daum points out, that means that we have to overcome some pretty big contenders:
Look, I would never suggest that being a mom — or a dad — isn't very difficult at times (and when severe disabilities or illness are involved, it can be unfathomably difficult just about all of the time). I would even make the argument that parenting may in fact be the most important job in the world, given that it involves overseeing the physical, intellectual, social and moral development of small humans who will eventually grow up and take charge of the planet. But off the top of my head I can think of several other jobs that are tougher than being a mom. For instance, president of the United States. Or coal miner. Or teacher in an underfunded urban public school. Or Amish farmer.
So, if we want to be the "best" we have to work the "hardest," and that means that so many moms are trying to fight an impossible balance. Does working hardest mean we have to work full-time in demanding corporate positions, attend all of the Little League games, bake all of fundraiser cupcakes from scratch, wash all of the laundry, have amazing sex with our husbands, maintain our weight through strict diet and exercise regimens, buy local produce from the Farmer's Market that's only open for four hours on Saturday, read a bedtime story every night, get a promotion, do the dishes, and balance the checkbook? Does working hardest mean that we can't let our partners take responsibility for any of the child-rearing or housework? Does working hardest mean that if we don't go to bed every single night feeling like we couldn't handle another second that we've failed, and now we're not the best? So do we have to try it all again tomorrow?

Framing motherhood as the "hardest" and "best" job is the foundation behind the Supermom trend that's wearing us all thin. It undermines attempts to equally share our parenting responsibilities with partners, and it puts us all on the defensive. 

Policy and Motherhood

Over at the blog When Did I Get Like This, there's a post that explains another frustration behind this "hardest job" issue (emphasis mine):
I hate when people say that. I really do. “Motherhood is the hardest job in the world.” Because the person who says it is usually someone who couldn’t have any idea whether that was true or not. (viz: Oprah. Joe Scarborough.) It’s patronizing, devoid of meaning, and wrong. Was getting my kids to school this morning harder than working in a Chilean mine? Of course not. Is juggling dinner, homework, and bathtime harder than rush hour air traffic control at JFK? (About the same, I’d say.) There are times when being a mother is way, way harder or soul-sucking or monotonous or impossible than anyone who hasn’t been one can imagine. But painting us all as selfless saints is a ridiculous generalization that allows public figures to pay lip service to motherhood without standing behind it.
Framing motherhood as "the hardest job in the world" and then sparking this do-or-die battle over anyone who suggests otherwise (even tangentially) allows people (politicians in particular) to gain "Mommy Points" without actually doing anything to help parents. Just coming forward and sticking up for those hard-working moms who are doing the "hardest" job out there is supposed to appease us all, even when it comes from someone like Mitt Romney who, mere months ago, was championing his plan to send moms on welfare back to work as soon as their children hit two years. This was not because it would save money, but because those moms needed the "dignity of work." I could not possibly care less if Mitt Romney says that our work as mothers is important, but I care a whole hell of a lot about the policies he puts in place that help or hinder our ability to do that work, policies ranging from maternity leave to domestic violence to adoption.

Extreme Rhetoric Yields Extreme Results

And that's what it all comes down to for me. Anytime that we enter into extreme rhetoric like declaring something the "best" or the "hardest," we dichotomize the conversation and turn into warring factions. Since we all think we're doing the "best" job, we have to vilify anyone who's doing it differently. (If I'm breastfeeding and I'm best, then that formula-feeding mom is not best. If I'm staying home with my child and I'm best, then that working mom is not best. If I'm using cloth diapers and I'm best, then that disposable-diaper-using mom is not best. And so on and so forth.)

It's as if we think not framing motherhood as the "hardest" job immediately means framing it as the "easiest" one, but that's not the case.

In short, when someone tells you that you are doing the "hardest" job by mothering, it's not necessarily a compliment. It could be setting you up for unattainable standards, driving a wedge between you and other mothers, making you hesitate to ask for a more equal partnership, and distracting you from advocacy that could make that "hardest" job a lot easier. . . for everyone.


  1. Yes to EVERYTHING you say here -- THANK YOU! At our blog we have been talking about this whole perfectionism issue and the weird way that framing motherhood as a job totally changes our relationship to it. You've hit the nail on the head.

  2. "Framing motherhood as the "hardest" and "best" job is the foundation behind the Supermom trend that's wearing us all thin. It undermines attempts to equally share our parenting responsibilities with partners, and it puts us all on the defensive."

    GREAT post, and I love the connection you drew. The whole "motherhood is the hardest job" never sat well with me because there are a lot of mothers who don't fit the typical SAHM experience (yet their mothering is no less valid). It just sets us up for division, particularly in the SAHM vs. WM wars. How could it not?

  3. Another problem with the ad and the meme in general is the absence of fathers. If you care about women not being the sole- or primary-caregiver for children then it's incumbent on all of us, surely, to say "hey, where are the dads?". Otherwise the image that childcare is (just) for girls continues to be reinforced. That helps no-one.

    1. I agree completely. The absence of fathers in images of parenting is a huge problem and so is the portrayal of fathers as incompetent (like in the Huggies commercials). I also wonder what these messages say to fathers who equally share in parenting responsibilities or fathers who parent alone. If mothering is the "hardest job in the world," then are those fathers also doing the hardest job without recognition, or are these messages implying that when fathers do it, it ceases to be the hardest job? Either way, the value of their work is undermined.

    2. I was going to comment about this as well. The commercial made me tear up but I was also quite sad to again attribute anyone's success to moms only. (although it is interesting to have females being the ones to see kids through in sports to an Olympic level, vs males)

      Good point about incompetence as well, those commercials may make me even more sad. So many fathers are shown as needing a reward or deserving recognition just for "chipping in to help out Mom". Preposterous!

  4. Great post! The other thing about the missing fathers in these images also leaves all the responsibility and burden on the mothers when they raise unsuccessful children. The reason it's supposedly the hardest job in the world is the end result. And when you end up with a criminal child or mentally ill child, etc. suddenly, it's all the mother's fault. Think of the stereotypical serial killer with the overbearing mother. Perhaps, in these cases, it's the absent father that is the problem, but nobody ever mentions that, although, if they do it probably be only to say that the he left because the mother was so horrible.

  5. I've had corporate jobs working 18 hour days in incredibly tough field, working my arse off to get ahead as a woman, I have a masters degree and worked various highly professional careers before taking maternity and then staying 'home' ( I HATE the phrase stay-at-home-mom, try 24-7 7 day a week full time slave) now Don't get me wrong, my two babies are the biggest blessing in my life and my whole world, but compared to the corporate world, it's a piece of cake!?! Forget corporate coffee breaks or 'business lunches' or evening 'networking' events or charity balls.... You can't even SHOWER, let alone pee with the door closed, I didn't sleep for 2 years straight more than 2 hr intervals, colicy baby then pregnant again, both childbirths involving massive surgery then a third...screaming in car seat for 2 years nonstop then 8 Mos pregnant raising 2 year old non sleeper then raising and breastfeeding another baby all night long and day whilst caring for a toddler, it is most certainly the hardest job in the world. I used to be a boss, had time to surf the Internet and talk about adult concepts in my field, my husband also worked the corporate city life at 18 hrs on average....the job of being a mother to babies and toddlers never ends, is very rewarding but if you are determined to do a good job at said new career, you are making homemade babyhood to get it spit all over, breastfeeding for months whilst your breasts bleed regardless of 1000 professional books read, trying to pump for one crying baby while the other imp ails himself on something, you are down and dirty on the floor playing educational toddler games, mind you mine were two wild boys, the most wonderful boys on the planet, but temper tantrums at diaper changing or any transition, learning a whole new career, not taught at the top universities for sure....I don't think I have showered in 4 days, it's 3 meals a day to cater each age and need and make it healthy and then researching discipline and medical issues at every age, average toddler/baby gets sick about 10x per first 2 years, holding them all night long with scary 104 fever or midnight visits to hospital for suddenly non breathing child, and really no break here when daddy works 4am-10pm.... You collapse on couch after books, bath, bedtime routine for both, nebulizing one each night for asthma, have about 1 hour to self where you clean up from chaos all day long, then hit the sack and wake to screaming at 2am, then both at 6am for good. Really? This is a job with no lunch perks, no coffee breaks, no paycheck, yes the hardest job in the world. Why do you think most corporate woman go right back to work? Even my VERY male husband attorney agreed, shocked me ;) it's the hardest job on the planet. Gotta go this was longest thing I wrote today and now the boys are destroying the dinner table....

    1. Amen Anonoymous :) Not to mention that everything is clean, sterilized, sanitized, making sure crawling babies or toddlers don't put something in their mouths toxic , etc,. Etc. I totally relate to the no bathroom and shower break lol Motherhood is a huge wake-up call lol :)

  6. Imagine being a journalist in Afghanistan, with all the bullets flying around your head, thinking "Phew, glad I'm not a mother, THAT's the hardest job in the world".