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Honor the value of mothering

A friend just sent me a joke, the premise of which was the lack of respect accorded women whose principal occupation is that of mother. One woman "solved" the problem by describing her occupation as "research associate in the field of child development and human relations."

Enola Aird, director of the Motherhood Project, might permit herself a wry smile _ but less than a broad grin of victory. The jokester didn't quite get it. The problem Aird and her sisterhood are addressing is not that too little bottom-line value attaches to the hard work that mothers do, but that too much bottom-line thinking clouds our consideration of what is truly valuable.

"America," she told me on a recent visit to Washington from her Connecticut home, "needs to recognize and appreciate the tremendous value mothers add to their children's lives and, therefore, to the whole society. America needs to recognize the value of caring and nurturing, of instilling values, indeed of transforming the society."

But not in terms of dollars. What she hopes for, she says, is something between the Hallmark view of mothering as the domain of selfless saints and the economic view of mothers as performers of a list of chores _ like doing the laundry or driving carpool.

And though she hopes her mothers' movement will bring new respect to mothers, it is not respect as ego-massage she has in mind. "I have that kind of respect," she said. "I've been a successful lawyer, a well-paid and highly respected professional. (She is also the wife of Yale law professor Stephen Carter, author of the hugely successful first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park.) People appreciate that. But I think they underappreciate what is far more valuable: my role of bringing up successful, intelligent, morally and ethically grounded young people.

"If they realize how important the role is that mothers play, they might pay more attention to what we have to say about what the popular culture _ especially mass marketing _ is doing to our society. There is a disconnect between the values of the marketplace and the values that make it possible for us to raise good children."

An early undertaking of the Motherhood Project, which is linked to the New York-based Institute for American Values, will be a major study on the attitudes of mothers _ what Aird calls "the deepest questions of motherhood, what they do, what they need, what they think about their role and the values necessary to sustain it."

Some aspects of the year-old movement _ for instance the call for a mothers' code for TV advertising _ are relatively easy to talk about, though perhaps difficult to achieve. Others are hard to speak clearly about _ perhaps especially for a man.

Many men, for instance, might applaud the movement's call to honor the special role of mothers because it seems to suggest that many of today's social ills are the result of abandonment by women of their mothering role.

"We are not telling career women they ought to stay at home with their children," says the Panama-born mother of two. "That's a personal choice. Nor are we talking about getting fathers off the hook. We are about encouraging and empowering mothers to take a leading role in working for a fundamental shift in our cultural values and priorities. We want women to be deeply involved in making social policy, public and private. I think it may be important for those of us who've had the luxury of time to philosophize about these matters to take the lead in putting them out there. But we have to be very careful to avoid any temptation to elitism."

There's one aspect of the problem even Aird has trouble addressing directly: the near impossibility of mothers and fathers, even in two-parent homes, to equalize sacrifice on behalf of children. It will help if we adopt public policies _ education or child-care credits, for instance _ to help mothers who take themselves out of the job market for a while. And it will help if the rest of us really learn to honor what Aird calls the value-added of mothering.

But in most cases, the sacrifices necessary to raise the sort of children we want are likely to be unequal, and tolerable only if marriage is accepted as permanent.

"Mom," Aird said her 13-year-old daughter once told her, "You are raising us for a world that doesn't exist any more."

Perhaps. Or maybe for a world that doesn't exist yet.

+ William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group