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10,000 whispers and the immeasurable economics of motherhood
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Social activist, CEO of a small nonprofit, educator, talent agent, logistician, dietitian, fashion consultant, therapist and nurse. These are just a few of the roles mothers play in the lives of their children. And they are titles my wife has used, with a knowing smile in a number of social settings, to describe her role as a full-time mother.
Some have attempted to estimate the economics of motherhood by adding up replacement costs of services mothers render, most recently yielding a market value of $112,962 per year. But their real impact is immeasurable.
It is true that opportunities for women in education and the formal workforce have risen steadily since World War II. So successful have been our girls and women that they now outpace males in college enrollment. Remarkable women lead companies, courts, central banks and international financial institutions. Regrettably and inexcusably, some professional hurdles still exist.
But as the ceilings of women’s professional achievements continue to rise, so has the perception that anything but such pursuits represents an “opt-out.” Accordingly, the number of children with a “traditional” stay-at-home mother and a working father has dropped from 41 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2012. And some women who pursue the time-honored profession of mother have perceived negativity against their choice, calling the bias “motherism.” Likewise, among full-time mothers, some share a perception that women who work are “abandoning” their children, which is also hurtful and unfair.
In every study of which I am aware, the mother-child parental relationship is paramount in a child’s development. In fact, while a researcher at the RAND corporation early in my career, I participated with a team that evaluated the cost-effectiveness of early-childhood intervention programs seeking to help children from high-risk homes succeed in life. I came to admire the aims of well-meaning social scientists and public officials who promoted increased public investment in research and programs.
However, while some of these very costly programs show slight positive results for the highest-risk children, they actually found significant negative impacts on most children being cared for by others. But we need look no further than ourselves for the wisdom — where 60 percent in a Pew survey said children are better off with a parent in the home during the working day.
The evolution of rights and roles of women has been the subject of many movements and studies. Rather than pit one choice against another, I will instead look specifically at the remarkable contribution of full-time mothers, now a minority.
Ever adept at finding unique perspectives, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explains that “researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” How might this relate to motherhood and the development of an “expert” human being?
Consider a mother who begins interfacing with her infant child for an average of 12 hours a day (and perhaps another four to six in the middle of the night!). Let’s say such face-to-face interactions decline to three hours daily with her 18-year-old high-schooler. With some simple math, we can estimate that a full-time mother spends more than 50,000 hours with her child before adulthood.
Throughout the 6,570 days spent overseeing a child’s development into an able adult, one can easily imagine a mother offering tens of thousands of whispers into the ear of her child. Her expert guidance includes these admonitions: “say thank you,” “share with your friend,” “use good manners,” “be kind,” “show respect,” "work hard," "never give up" and “you can do it.”
These nonaccredited microlessons in “how to be a great human being” are delivered — often with heroic restraint and maddening repetitiveness — with an intimacy and timeliness that can neither be measured in a macroeconomic model nor substituted by any another individual or institution. We are foolish if we diminish in any way the choice of a woman to be a full-time mother in the original cottage industry.
I remember with awe the feeling I had when my soon-to-be wife, who graduated magna cum laude, told me about her plans to go to graduate school. She explained, “I want to be able to tell my children that I could have done anything in this world, and I chose to be their mother.” She has since invested at least 200,000 hours building our children, with countless whispers along the way.
To her and all mothers throughout the ages, no matter their circumstances, humanity owes you immeasurable gratitude for life, love and livelihood. To my angel mother, thank you for your whispers that continue to shape my soul.
Contact Matthew at or @Sanders_Matt