How much is a mother worth?

by Jessie Cole

So far, the debate about cuts in the income of single mothers in Australia has revolved around the question of whether or not it is possible to live on Newstart. This is, of course, a worthy question. But for me it sidesteps some of the larger issues at hand.

At the heart of the matter lies the age old problem of who is responsible for the children and what is the cost of that responsibility.  Women, and not just single mothers, are often left with the lion’s share when it comes to parenting. Mothering undoubtedly has its rewards but it is often a significant encumbrance when it comes to being part of the workforce. There has been a push in recent years for fathers to share the ‘burden’ of this care, but – on the whole – we are not there yet.

Statistics about the discrepancy between men’s and women’s incomes, even when doing the same job, are well established. When I was a teenager understanding how this difference could conceivably exist was impossible. My high school was full of high achieving girls: passionate, dedicated, intelligent creatures who, it seemed, would one day rule the world. How could it be that when these girls made their way out into society they would somehow become the underdogs? I thought about it a lot, but the answer remained elusive. Discrimination? Based on what?

It was only when I reached university that the answer became clear. An introductory Gender Studies subject was all it took. I still remember the bookshelf of the library I was standing in front of when the revelation hit. It was all about mothering. The sudden knowledge came at me sideways, a painful thwack. To build a career and have children I was going to have to do two full-time jobs, only one of them paid, and juggling these two jobs would leave me exhausted and frayed at the edges. And, as the statistics consistently showed, doing these two jobs would mean I’d often be left in the dust.

I must admit, it was not an appealing future.

What is forgotten in debates about parenting payment is that mothering is work. It may not be financially remunerated, or a sure-fire path to the top, but it is work nonetheless. And if mothers didn’t do it, someone else would have to be paid to. Although childcare workers are among the lowest paid in our ranks, we still don’t expect them to work for nothing. There is an annual American survey by which attempts to estimate how much the average mother would earn a year if they were actually paid for the work they do. In 2012, the average stay-at-home mum came in at about $113 000 a year, with a working mum adding about $66 000 to their annual income. It would certainly be interesting to see an Australian calculation.

All this brings me to the difficult question – what is the value of mothering? Clearly, our whole society chugs along quite nicely on the unpaid labour of women and has for some time. Perhaps it has been this way since the invention of money, but that doesn’t make it right.

Inarguably, things have improved in our nation for women in the last half century, mothers included. The introduction of the Supporting Mothers Benefit in 1973 could rate as one of the biggest wins for feminism in Australian history. Mothers being paid for mothering. A fiscal value being placed on what is undeniably a vital and worthy labour. But it has never really been seen this way. From a sympathetic vantage point, providing ‘parenting payment single’ is seen as an act of generosity from a caring community; a safety net for abandoned mothers which prevents them and their offspring from slipping irrevocably into poverty. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it is seen as an easy route for pregnant teenage dropouts to sit pretty whilst contributing nothing to society for the rest of their sorry lives.

Nowhere in either of these mindsets is there room for a real discussion of the value of mothering to our society at large. If we leave aside an attempt to put a monetary value on the labour of mothering, we are left with an entirely different set of parameters. Mothers care for children. Children are our next generation. The quality of care they receive is imperative to our future. Does it not seem palpably obvious that the value of mothering is therefore high?

Gillard’s strategy to move mothers from parenting payment single to Newstart once their last child turns eight will create an estimated savings of $728 million over four years. Right on target for budget surplus come next election. That the government sees single mothers as the easiest target when it comes to revenue-raising, the least likely spending cut to create a voter backlash, says a lot about our country. To suppose this budget cut is an equitable solution is to assume that once children have settled into school it is a fair playing field for single mothers in the workforce. Deep down, we all know this isn’t true.

And to believe that having older children is less of a burden on mothers is to have very little understanding of the issues at play. In the simplest of terms, I am a single mother with two teenage boys. My oldest is fifteen, 6 foot 1, weighs 80kgs, and easily eats as much as two grown women. Feeding him alone is a substantial cost, and that is just the problem of sustenance. Taking into account the varied and multifaceted nature of my children’s demands upon my time and resources, the Newstart allowance is something of a joke. Working part time, as I did previously, will now cost me 40 cents in every dollar I earn over $31 a week. What else is this but a deterrent? I am left with a choice between living in poverty or attempting to join the full-time workforce. ‘Attempting’ being the operative word. Each of these paths is littered with motherhood-related impediments.

I used to be so proud to live in a nation that paid mothers for being mothers. It is disturbing that in order to balance the budget our government is taking money from those of us who give so much and already receive so little in return. If we are to live in a society that considers everything only in terms of a spread sheet, it is time we started to count the cost of parenting, especially for those of us who go it alone.

Mothering is work. Women enter into motherhood at great personal cost, yet the contribution of mothers to society is immense, and – let’s face it – vital to the continuation of our world as we know it.

Pay us what we’re worth.

First Published on Daily Life, 7th January 2013.