The job description sounded miserable – inhumane, even: Rehtom Inc.’s posting sought a Director of Operations willing to work 135+ hours per week for no pay, no benefits, no vacation or holidays – but buoyed, perhaps, by the understanding that said position would offer “infinite opportunities for personal growth and rewards.” One bullet point describing the ideal candidate was offset in bold text: “Positive disposition at all times.”
By now, you’ve may have seen the viral video (above), featuring interviews from the candidates who applied, and – spoiler alert– discovered that millions of people already do the job everyday….mothers.
The purpose of the video, produced by the ad agency Mullen, was simple: help a client sell Mother’s Day greeting cards. The message it transmits is far more complex, and one group of policy analysts and parents thought it merited a closer look. Below, their edited e-discussion details why some of the ideas baked into the tear-jerking spot could be problematic for larger work-life family debates.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America: The video is funny and touching, but disturbing in a number of ways. First, it deeply reinforces the ideal of the completely selfless mother — the woman who is available for her children 24/7 with no compensation. Many if not most mothers who fit that image deny a huge part of themselves, the part that is defined not by relationships to others but by individual agency and aspiration. I do not think that my sons would recognize that description of a mother; they would certainly not say, “My mom was always there.” But I hope and believe they would still think of me as a “good mother.”
Second, it represents motherhood as drudgery: backbreaking work around the clock with no pay, no vacations, and more work on holidays. At some point it mentions the value derived from a “close relationship with the associate.” But that cannot possibly capture the joy, wonder, and deep emotional satisfaction that comes from loving and nurturing children — or spouses, siblings, and parents — and watching them grow. It is part of the undervaluing of care in our society – seeing it as all give and no get.
Third, it ignores dads! In a growing number of households it is dad who is the primary caregiver, while mom is the primary breadwinner, even assuming that both parents are both working and caregiving. The complete absence of the idea that Dad can be just as much the anchor of the family as Mom — emotionally and physically — is actually insulting to men. No need to get all het up about something that is obviously intended to be funny and cute. But little viral videos like this one can reinforce deeply held stereotypes that are worth examining and unpacking.
Brigid Schulte, New America Breadwinning and Caregiving Program Fellow: The video reminded me so much of the image of the Angel in the House that traps women – both figuratively in the minds of men AND women, and literally – that Virginia Woolf was trying to kill off: Woolf wrote that the Angel, a figment of Victorian writer Coventry Patmore’s imagination, “was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it – in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”
And lest we think that that Angel in the House is a relic of an ancient age, I think only of the TV ad for a UK department store that ran over the Christmas holidays just last year. In it, the Angel may look modern, but she’s still doing all the shopping, wrapping, planning, organizing, decorating, cooking, magic making, sitting on the little stool at the table while everyone else sits higher on chairs with a tired smile on her face. At the end of the spot, she finally sits down to take a breath and a sip of wine and a man’s voice asks, “What’s for tea, love?” And just this year, when I was looking for a family calendar, I became so frustrated by how gendered they are – with assumptions that Busy Moms do it all or should do it all – that I wound up writing an essay about how the ubiquitous “Mom” calendars reinforce these powerful and powerfully limiting stereotypes.
So our task is twofold: to recognize and value the hard joy that is parenting and that both men and women are not only biologically and neurologically wired for nurture, but do, in fact raise children together, and to reimagine the role of caregivers – parents can be loving, accepting, giving and understanding, without giving all of themselves away.
Liza Mundy, Director, Caregiving and Breadwinning Program: I have kind of a perverse response to this video. First of all, I’m still not convinced that it’s real—the so-called interview applicants seem to be sitting in very cushy surroundings, not what you’d expect from someone desperate for a job, and they are conveniently diverse, but never mind. Let’s assume it’s real. I felt in watching it like I saw the punch line coming from a mile away, but I fully expected the big reveal to be that they were talking about the job of a PARENT. It never occurred to me that they would restrict it to “a mom.” Because of course, all that backbreaking labor – the schlepping to events, the work during holidays, all this supposedly joyless stuff they are describing – is something men do, too. Not in the same quantity as women, but men certainly are involved.
I agree with Brigid that in this video the Angel of the House—that impossible ideal of wifeliness and motherliness that Virginia Woolf sought to kill—is back with a vengeance. And I agree with Anne-Marie that the video completely understates the joys and satisfaction and sheer fun of giving care and being a parent.
But what also surprised me is that the producers completely left out one of the major burdens on parents – the cost of raising children. There is that funny line about how you will not be paid for your labor. But in truth, you will PAY for your labor, and pay and pay and pay, and our society will not help you because having children is something you have “selfishly” “chosen” to do. If you work in a paid job, you will also pay for child care, assuming you can find it (a recent Pew report showed an increasing number of women are staying home, not because of the pleasures of caregiving but because they can’t find affordable child care) and because you are paying for child care you will have a very hard time saving for college, or for your own retirement. There may be a narrow window of time when your children are teenagers and you are no longer paying for child care, but before you know it, college tuition will be right around the corner. The sum will be so astronomical, so mind-boggling that you will almost want to laugh, or maybe cry. You will blame yourself for not having saved enough. Either you will take out loans, or your children will take out loans, or maybe they will not go to college at all. If you choose to pay for your child’s college tuition, or even part of it, do not expect a tax credit or any government recognition that you are paying to educate the next generation of the American labor force at a time when going to college is more important than ever.
Children, who used to be source of unpaid labor back when Americans were farmers, are now the chief family cost centers (to paraphrase Mrs. Moneypenny). And we as a society don’t significantly help families, at any income level, really, to bear this cost. We worry that college graduates are having children later in life, and that this may disadvantage their children in terms of health outcomes, but we ignore that one reason for this is that late-twentysomethings can’t afford the child care costs. We worry that lower-income and even middle-income Americans are increasingly having children without getting married, but ignore the fact that one reason for this is they don’t think they are economically stable enough for marriage, which seems increasingly like an elusive goal.
So while I think the video underplays the enormous satisfaction and pleasure of being a parent, I also think that it weirdly underplays one of the central burdens, a burden that our society has made little effort to address: the relentless crushing costs, and the economic anxiety that goes along with it.
Not, as Anne-Marie says, that we want to get all het up about this. After all it’s only a video!
David Gray, Senior Fellow, New America: I agree with Liza and Anne-Marie that we shouldn’t get too focused on this as its only a video and we don’t know if it’s real. It reinforces stereotypes, which is unfortunate, but what I do appreciate about it is it puts being a parent in a corporate type setting. If we extend that idea, we wonder about all the economic value for society parents create and don’t get compensated for. How should society compensate parents for their sacrifices? The obvious emotional reward which is priceless? Tax credits? Better work/family policies? It does raise the question about economic value of this “job,” and how best to appreciate it. Parents may not sacrifice exactly what he suggests, but we do sacrifice a lot.