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Guest Post: “Economic Role of Parents Devalued”

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Your (Wo)Man in Washington welcomes guest blogger Amy Peake, a mother, lawyer, and writer. She has graciously allowed me to crosspost an opinion piece of hers that recently appeared in The Birmingham News.

MY VIEW: Economic role of parents devalued
By Special to The Birmingham News
May 30, 2010, 5:35AM
By AMY PEAKE

Theodore Roosevelt, father of six, once said: “The good mother .¤.¤. is more important to the community than even the ablest man; her career is more worthy of honor and is more useful to the community than the career of any man, no matter how successful.”

In the modern economy, two-thirds of all created wealth is created by human skills, what economists call “human capital.” What Roosevelt was trying to say is parents who are conscientiously and effectively rearing children are literally, in the words of economist Shirley Burggraf, “the major wealth producers in our economy.”

This simple truth was brought home to me by a recent conversation. I am a part-time lawyer and a full-time wife and mother; I don’t go to the office every day. I was out running errands in casual clothes one morning, and I stopped at the dry cleaners. The employees there know me and are accustomed to seeing me in work attire. The woman behind the counter immediately asked, “Aren’t you working today?” I didn’t stop to think and replied that I was not.

When I later reflected on my response, I thought about a typical day. I get up at 6:45 a.m., make the beds, empty the dishwasher, start laundry, shower and dress, then spend my day working at my law practice or writing at home. Later, I do the after-school carpool, return home, finish the laundry and prepare dinner.

While doing these things, I also “manage,” with the help of my husband, my 14-year-old daughter’s busy life — monitoring her schoolwork, facilitating her activities as a competitive baton twirler, planning birthday parties, arranging summer activities and just maintaining communication with her about the complexities of growing up in our crazy world. I may not be in a business suit every day, but I know I, along with every other parent I know, am always working.

Normally, I would probably not have picked up on this, but I have been reading an interesting book by reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Ann Crittenden called “The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued.” In it, Crittenden reflects on the changes in the U.S. economy that took place after the Civil War, when more men began earning wages than producing their own livelihood by farming or other trades for the first time in American history. Earlier, entire families contributed to the family business, usually a farm.

The shift in society and its attitudes toward work and mothers is reflected in the change to the U.S. Census form in 1860. When the census first began to measure economic activity in 1810, it had tallied the number of families, not individuals, working in agriculture, commerce and manufacturing. When working for wages became the norm, the census began to inquire into the occupations of individuals.

The 1850 census asked for the “profession, occupation, or trade” of each male person over 15. In 1860, the Census Bureau changed this question to include women, and the majority described their occupation as “housekeeper.” The wage-earning jobs held by men became society’s definition of “work,” and the economic contributions of mothers were marginalized.

This economic reality matters to parents, especially working mothers. Many parents who work as professionals have little time and energy left for their children, and many low-wage-earning parents have to work two jobs just to keep food on the table, and have even less time and resources for their children. Not only is this bad for families, it is bad for our society.

Our children are the human capital that drives the modern economy, instead of the factories and material capital of the old economy. So-called “high-nurturing” parents have been shown through recent studies in the neuroscience of brain development to raise healthier kids who are better able to deal with the stresses of life.

Hopefully, employers will become aware of these new scientific findings that show the significance of the impact of parent-child relationships on the brain development of children and how it shapes their potential as adults and future workers.

Our society needs to appreciate the economic benefits conferred by the parents working to raise the children who will be the future of our nation’s work force. When this happens, there will be more respect for parents and, maybe, more flexible work arrangements to benefit not only families but, ultimately, the future employers of the children we are working to raise.

We’d love to hear your comments below. You can also email Amy directly at amyp@peakeinc.net.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington