Nothing brings the bile up into my throat like people declaring that ‘being a mum is the hardest job in the world!!’. I had to almost give up the internet when that sentimental, smug video, about how difficult a ‘job’ it was to be a ‘mom’ seemed to be popping up all over my feeds. Mostly shared with comments of ‘So true!!’ ‘At last, someone who understands!’, ‘Hah – don’t you feel inadequate now, all you childless people!’, and ‘You working mums don’t even know you’re born!’.
I hate hate hate this meme because it’s fundamentally conservative, sexist and leads to a whole lot of toxic parenting culture. But seeing as Buzzfeed is apparently the next big thing, here’s a list of six reasons why.
1. No-one ever really wants to follow through with it
If being a parent is a job, let’s raise child benefit to £25,000 a year. Let’s provide an army of nannies to make sure parent get their legally-mandated break times and holidays. Let’s suggest that childless unemployed people consider parenting as a career choice. Let’s not expect anyone with a child below the age of 18 to take on another job!
Oh, wait. When you say ‘Being a mum is the hardest job in the world’ what you actually mean is ‘I love it that women do so much backbreaking unpaid labour!’
2. It’s always about the mums
I don’t think anyone tries to claim that being a dad is the hardest job in the world. If someone had being saying that, it might really have helped my partner as he struggled through some tough times caring for a 1-year-old full time far from any family or social support. But fundamentally, this meme is all about reinforcing the status quo, which is that women gladly and silently undertake the majority of childcare. If being a mom is the hardest job in the world – harder than brain surgery, harder than being a soldier, harder than making it to the top of an investment bank – then clearly women are specially and magically able to do it well and we should just leave them to it.
3. You’re doing it even when you’re not
Even those of us who choose to outsource our parenting (raises hand) never get to be off duty. When my son’s at nursery, I can’t just turn my phone off and sit back – it’s still up to me to pick him up if he’s sick, make sure I know when he needs his next vaccinations, plan what to keep him occupied with at the weekend and ensure a never-ending supply of clean shirts lands in his drawer. If parenting was my job, that would be called ‘being on-call’ or ‘non-contact time’. And I’d be paid for it.
4. You don’t get paid for it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much the definition of a ‘job’. It’s the only thing that differentiates it from ‘some stuff you do’. Sure, there are some exceptional circumstances were people don’t get paid to do something that most people describe as a job – certain types of voluntary work, exploitative internships, compulsory work placements etc. But these all have other characteristics of ‘jobbiness’ that parenting just doesn’t – like producing things of value to other people, being obliged to meet deadlines or go places, and having what you do dictated by other people. So first and foremost, parenting is not a job because it doesn’t meet the most basic definition of a ‘job’ in this culture.
Well, you may say, what if I hire a nanny? She’d definitely be doing a job – so if I do that work instead, doesn’t that mean that I’m doing a job? Nope, not really. I could hire a maid to do my cleaning, send my laundry to a service launderette and employ a chef to cook for me, but that doesn’t make the housework I do a ‘job’. It’s just ‘stuff that I do to live OK’. And parenting is ‘stuff that I do so my son lives OK’.
This might be making you annoyed for a reason you can’t put your finger on. And I think that reason is that mostly when people say ‘Being a mum is not a job!’ they are about to tell you that it’s not difficult and important and stay at home mums just swan about all day getting their nails done (hah). And to that I say: screw The Man. And screw this implicit assumption that paid work is the only thing that’s worth doing, or that a job title and a paycheck are the only way to be an interesting, important and respected person.
5. It excludes other carers
Looking after my child is not actually a very difficult job. Sure, it’s tiring and unrelenting, but I can’t even begin to compare it to caring for a loved one with dementia, or caring for oneself in the recovery from mental illness or addiction. There are lots of legitimate reasons for not being in the workforce; making brand new little producer/consumers is by far from the only one. So if you’re going to describe being a stay-at-home parent as a ‘job’, make sure you’re willing to extend the same language to all carers and self-carers.
6. It means you start treating parents like employees
And we’re nothing like employees. But once you’re used to thinking of stay-at-home parents as performing a task with society as their boss, it becomes tempting to start applying the logic of a boss to the parents you see around you. You start to feel that it’s OK to demand professionalism from parents – to expect, like employees, we should make sure that our personal circumstances, moods and resources don’t influence the standard of care we provide to our children. And as any parent can tell you, that’s just plain impossible. There’s no way that parents can avoid our children being in some way influenced by our environment and ourselves.
If an employee doesn’t show professionalism – if they are doing a bad job – then they get fired. It goes without saying that you can’t just fire parents. The bond between a child and a parent is almost indelible, even in the face of long separation of extreme cruelty. And so, if we care about the wellbeing of children, we can’t act as if it’s easy to fire a parent and get a better one. We can’t decide that parents who are forced to leave their kids in a car while they go for a job interview, or let them play in the park unattended, or live in poverty, or have mental illness are ‘doing a bad job’. We can’t fire them from their ‘jobs’ and find them foster parents instead – at least not without irreparably damaging the happiness and security of the kids. We have to see parents and their kids as two sides of the same coin, as a symbiosis, as dancers in a waltz or cogs in a machine. If we care about the wellbeing of children we need to make sure that everyone – parents AND kids – has the resources to live and love as well and happily as possible. We can’t just berate parents for not doing their ‘job’ properly.