6 Reasons We Should Stop Trying to Calculate the “Salary” of “Stay-at-Home Moms”

In No Particular Path on April 8, 2015 at 10:02 am

Every year for at least the last 15 years or so, someone has come out with an article claiming to calculate the dollar value of the work of a “stay-at-home mom,” or “homemaker.” But if we genuinely value and want to support the work that women do, then we should stop making pointless and arbitrary calculations. Here are six reasons why.

1. What is the Job Description?
These analyses all begin with some specific idea about what the job entails. These ideas are, to be blunt, unrealistic, gender-biased, and chauvinistic. One way to show this is to rethink the calculations using a gender-neutral argument. What we are really talking about is a family relationship involving two adults and at least one child. One of the adults, Adult A, has agreed to take employment outside the home for a salary or wage, and this employment will provide the family’s sole source of income. The other, Adult B, has agreed to remain at home with the couple’s child and not take paid outside employment. But what does that mean about the actual work each does in support of the family relationship? It is foolish to imagine that relationships in which one partner does nothing but go to a paid job and the other does everything else represent any kind of norm. The analyses also imply that Adult B is an employee of Adult A. One recent article made the claim that the author “can’t afford” his stay-at-home wife because of one of these “salary” computations.
2. Breaking Adult B’s Job Into Smaller Parts is Misleading.
These arguments always make the mistake of isolating out some of the tasks of the stay-at-home partner as though they are separate jobs rather than small parts of the overall job. Then they label those small parts as though they are separate and distinct jobs. A web site called Salary.com lists those jobs as daycare teacher, chief executive officer, psychologist, cook (some sites say chef), housekeeper, laundry operator, computer operator, facilities manager, janitor, and van driver (other sources call this a chauffeur). Another recent article included nannie, personal shopper, financial assistant and even PR assistant (because the author apparently expects his wife to serve as an adjunct to his own career by attending, and sometimes hosting dinners and parties related to his work).
But, to borrow the punch line from an old joke, calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one. I have, out of some necessity, become a fairly competent do-it-yourself-er. I have, for instance painted both the outside and the inside of my house. I am actually quite proud of my skill at cutting-in paint along the ceiling or the door and window trim. But I would never claim to be, in those moments, a painting contractor. Someone who straps the kids into their seats and heads for the mall, or dance lessons, or soccer practice, or the grocery store, or all of those does not suddenly become a chauffeur. If Adult B takes on the responsibility of keeping the checkbook balanced, and maintaining a simple family budget, this is not the equivalent of being a professional financial officer. Cooking the family’s meals does not make one a chef. And so on. Calling what I do at some point during my day a “computer operator” doesn’t actually make me one.
The analyses then make some claim as to the “average” number of hours a week spent on each of these jobs. Aside from the question of the validity and accuracy of these averages, there are few professional jobs that would ever be broken down this way. I was a college professor. The job involved a variety of tasks. I taught; I planned my classes; I assigned, collected, evaluated, and I graded assignments; I kept track of students’ progress and a record of their work in the class. I also did a certain amount of committee work related to the things such as the college curriculum, long-range planning, goals, and mission. But I got paid for the whole job. I didn’t get paid one amount as a group leader, something else as data analyst, another amount as computer operator or word processing specialist or lecturer. The job is the whole job, and the value of the job is not the sum of its parts. Even an attorney, who needs to document her time for each client by the separate tasks performed, charges for an hour’s worth of her time, not differently for each thing she does.
3. The Calculations Ignore Overlapping Work and Multi-tasking.
When Adult B packs the kid or kids into the van and heads for the store to pick up some groceries, several of the jobs overlap. But isn’t buying groceries one of the responsibilities of a chef; isn’t planning what food to have around part of child care; if there is a spontaneous side trip to the cleaners are we in the realm of laundry operator; and can we really separate out the driving necessary to get to the store and home again from the tasks of shopping and getting the cleaning?
4. The Calculations Ignore Everything Adult A Does Besides The Salaried Work.
This has two parts: first, the totality of Adult A’s contribution to the family is diminished, and the real value of what everyone in the family does is imbalanced. I think we can assume that, in a healthy family, the principle wage earner doesn’t simply go to work, come home, and do nothing else. So how do we figure A’s other contributions into the formula? Do we add value every time A stops at the store on the way home, cooks dinner, cares for the child, helps with homework, rakes leaves or replaces a washer in the kitchen faucet? Perhaps we could subtract those activities from Adult B’s “salary.” And let’s remember that the tasks of family life change over time, they aren’t a fixed set of chores or responsibilities. Do we reduce Adult B’s salary over time because as the child grows the time spent caring for and educating the child becomes less as those tasks are handed over to other people, such as the public school system? Do we increase the salary if the child is home schooled? If the family buys a lawn tractor shall we recalculate the contribution of the person who mows the lawn?
5. Who Works For Whom; And Who Pays For What?
The tasks of a marriage are not simply categorized into his-and-hers. If B’s work at home supports and supplements A’s work outside, then A’s salary is earned for B’s work as much as for A’s. Unless we make the calculations based on the idea that B is an employee of A; that everything B does is in the service of A; that, in effect, A is the boss. Since the perception of calculations that claim to value what “stay-at-home Moms” do, isn’t this just a perpetuation of the chauvinistic, male-centered idea that the wife is subservient to the husband? Given such a perception, why not go all the way and include “sex worker” in the list of job titles? If we are going to calculate how much A “owes” B for staying at home, how do we calculate what B owes A for A’s unsalaried contributions? And what of all the other costs of being a family? How do we figure in the cost of a mortgage, utilities, car payments, clothing, food, medical care, insurance, and contributions to a retirement account? Shall we simply divide all those costs in half and deduct B’s half from the salary we have calculated for B? Or do we simply assume that all those things are A’s responsibility because A earns an actual salary, not a virtual one?
6. Everyone Loses.
This sort of analysis, because it relies on rigidly categorized and arbitrarily assigned ideas about what the husband and the wife do in a marriage, is actually kind of insulting to everyone. It insults the women and those who stay in the home, whom it claims to be valuing, by calculating that value in monetary rather than personal terms. It insults wage-earners by reducing their contribution to a paycheck. It insults all the people who actually do the professional jobs on the list by ignoring the real complexity of their work, the extent of their professional training and experience, and the struggles they may have gone through to earn the kind of salaries imagined for them by those who do these analyses. It insults those who both work for a wage and do all those unpaid tasks as well by suggesting that one must either work outside the home or in it, but can’t do both. And it insults normal healthy families by dividing what they do into impersonal tasks rather than elements of a much richer and more meaningful relationship.

The issues of equal pay for equal work, of the under-representation of women in the paid workforce, of our perceptions of “men’s work” and “women’s work” and gender roles generally all need serious discussion and resolution. The nature of marriage and the roles of men and women in relationships need to be addressed in order to deal with the reality that marriage is not a single thing, but as varied as the people who enter into it. Also, the reasons some people decide to leave salaried work are equally varied. The stay-at-home Mom may also be an artist, a gardener, a writer, a volunteer, or active in any number of activities outside the home. These days, the stay-at-home Mom might very well be a Dad.
Perhaps a good starting point might be to recognize and declare that we will no longer reduce the value of the work people do to nothing more than a wage or salary. If people really got paid what they are worth for the value of the work they do, then teachers would get paid more than baseball players, there would be no such thing as a “volunteer” fire department, and no executive would earn four hundred times as much as his average employee. And we should stop devaluing the work of people who don’t get a wage or salary. The worth of every human being and the work they do is always going to be more than the sum of the parts. And we need to recognize that healthy families are shared, common, and mutually supportive relationships that are harmed when the people in them are encouraged to think of them in reductive and mercenary terms.

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