Is Being a Mother the Most Important Job in the World?

Reading a recent article, in which the women disproved the saying that being a mother is the most important job in the world, made me ponder the questions concerning parenthood in our current world. Describing motherhood as a ‘job’ is an interesting phrase with which I would disagree. Furthermore, what about paternity? It seems parenthood is often synonymous with motherhood; a sentimental image of the family with mother and father as caregiver and patriarch.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress © 2011, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress © 2011, some rights reserved

It is hard for women to detach themselves from the caregiver role. Women are often associated more closely with the child because of their biological ability for reproduction. On the other hand, men are often portrayed as the sole provider and the breadwinner of the family. This stereotype has stigmatised both genders. Indeed, women have had more trouble accessing the realm of employment and men have been excluded from the domestic sphere.

The division of private and public therefore mirrors the gender dichotomy. Men have difficulty embracing their status as caring and loving fathers. The image of the patriarch is often macho and virile, deprived of sentiment. Emotional men are looked on unfavourably  by our society. The expression ‘man up’ is often used where men are said to show vulnerability. How can men accept their figure of caring parent if the social construction of masculinity forbids them emotional eloquence?

This is seen in state laws concerning maternity and paternity leave. In France for example, men are only allowed two weeks paternity leave, whereas women can take up to sixteen weeks. Without the possibility to bond with their new-born, how can men deconstruct their image of the unemotional patriarch? Mothers are also said to forge an attachment to their child quite easily by carrying them for 9 months. For the father, because a physical bond is impossible, harder work is needed to connect to the child. Longer paternity leave could help deepen that affection and deconstruct the concept of the patriarchal family.

On the other end of the gender spectrum, women are portrayed as ultimate caregivers. A woman who does not regard her children as the greatest gift on earth is deemed unfit for motherhood. Being a woman seems to be closely linked with being a mother, as if the sole purpose of women was to have children. It is challenging nowadays for women to combine their professional and private lives without having to sacrifice one or the other. Only 2.5 percent of the CEO positions in the finance and insurance industries in the United States are held by women.

It is difficult for a woman to detach herself from this image of motherhood in employment. Indeed, debates about maternity leave are often the reason for discrimination in the work place. An employer often reduces women potential child bearers who will have to take time off the company and be a liability to the former. However, what we often do not see is the benefits of family life to state welfare. Orloff, an academic specialising in international relations, states that the division between paid and unpaid labour ‘should be reconstructed based on the recognition of the importance of families and women’s unpaid word to the provision of social welfare’.[1]

We can therefore see that women and men do not have the same parental status. Men are socially constructed to exclude themselves from family life in fear of being too sentimental, whereas women are unable to detach themselves from their image of mothers. We still see very few stay-at-home dads compared to full time mothers.

These gendered constructions of parenthood are, however, being deconstructed by new conceptions of family, breaking down more traditional values. Single parents have to fulfil both roles, blurring the lines between the masculine and feminine spheres. The rise of the LGBT community has also changed kinship relations, in that parental roles can no longer mirror gender dichotomy. Weston, an anthropologist, analysed gay and lesbian families in her book ‘Family we choose’.[2] She concluded that family is a product of love, rather than the product of genetics and blood relations.

With the rise of divorce, families have often been recomposed, which has often deconstructed the roles of mother and father. Having more than two parents moves us away from those sole provider and caregiver images. Women having more access to the job market has also created more balanced roles in the domestic sphere.

Despite the recent deconstruction of kinship, progress has still yet to be made in terms of breaking the traditional image of the mother and the father. Complete gender equality in employment would help to make more equal parent roles in society. A change in law is needed to give fathers the same privileges with their children as mothers currently enjoy.

[1] Orloff A. S., ‘gender and the Social Rights of Citizenship: The Comparative Analysis of Gender Relations and Welfare States’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (June 1993)

[2] Weston K., Families We Choose: Lesbians Gays Kinship, Columbia University Press (1991)