Mothers and Their Work

May 06, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Not long ago, the state of California officially notified Zoe Lofgren that motherhood wasn't a job.

It was a status, it was a biological description, it took time and energy and skills but it wasn't strictly speaking -- and they were speaking strictly -- an occupation.

According to the laws of the state, the woman running for Congress in the 16th District could officially list herself as a lawyer or a member of the board of supervisors, but not as a mother. No ''mothers'' were allowed on the ballot.

This created a predictable stir. And not just in the Lofgren home where Zoe lives with her husband and the two children who didn't add up to one job. More than a few women in Santa Clara County were thanking her for defending the status of their mom jobs.

''To say that motherhood isn't work, is an outrage,'' says Mrs. Lofgren who is still smarting over what she learned from this run-in with the state.

''We don't value work that isn't paid,'' she says. ''Motherhood isn't for pay, so it doesn't count.''

Well, anyone who talks or writes about working mothers gets a taste of that outrage she described. After all, everything about motherhood has become a sensitive subject. It isn't like apple pie anymore unless there's a lot of family fighting over pie crust.

The words ''working mother'' provoke an instant reply that ''every mother is a working mother.'' These reminders come from women in every walk of life including those who moonlight on the double-shift of office and family.

Indeed, if there has been a truce in the late, unlamented mommy wars it's been written with this new language. Women today describe themselves very carefully, very correctly, as working ''outside the home'' or working ''inside the home.''

Now Mother's Day has come around again, carrying its odd advertising images of serene and sexy mothers who want satin nightgowns splashed with $30 an ounce perfume.

But there is much more down-to-earth desire this year to get some nicely wrapped packages of respect for the, uh, job of raising children.

It isn't just California that is ambivalent about the mom job these days. Every editorial and political speech describes raising children as ''the hardest job in the world'' or ''the most important job in the world.'' But you rarely find it on a woman's employment resume.

For that matter, how often do you see the obituary of a ''mother'' in a major newspaper? A woman who raised three children for 20 years dies unheralded, or perhaps, carrying the title of a job she ++ held for three years. Unless she is Virginia Kelley with a son named Bill Clinton, her mom job won't make the death notice.

The fact that childbearing and rearing is unpaid, as Mrs. Lofgren noted, is part of its un-value. Sometimes, in return, we try to put a price tag on mothering -- How much is it worth in the GDP? How much is it worth in this family? -- to prove its dollar value. Other times we insist that not everything of value must have a price tag. Mothering, we sniff, is not for sale.

If our attitudes toward the job of mothering are ambivalent when we talk about the middle class, we become schizophrenic when we talk about the poor. When was the last time that anyone -- certainly any politician -- described a welfare mother as ''working in the home?'' Who was the last teen-ager praised for listing ''mother'' as her occupation?

And if we have trouble respecting the unpaid mothers we have no trouble disrespecting the publicly paid mothers. There may be all sorts of messages in the culture that encourage a middle-class mother to be home with small children. But the same culture now sends out messages saying that poor children have better models in mothers who ''work.''

What a muddle we are in for Mother's Day.

Motherhood is a relationship and a role and a job -- all in one. It's what we are and what we do. Few of us quit and few ever totally retire. There's no single description that fits every day or every year. And there is no single attitude about motherhood -- one size -- that fits all.

Sooner or later, California will let ''mothers'' on the ballot. That's the easy stuff. But as a country we have barely begun to deal with all the changing and conflicted notions about mothers and their work. There are serious pains, labor pains, ahead.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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