Mothers Are Not Society's Free Source of Labor: Saying "No" to the Expected Favor

If you want to be respected by others the great thing is to respect yourself. Only by that, only by self-respect will you compel others to respect you. ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I almost broke out into the Hallelujah Chorus this morning. I would have, if I wasn't tone-deaf and didn't want to torture anyone who might be in hearing radius of the wailing that masquerades as my singing voice. So I had to be content with writing a blog post instead.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published Yes, I'm Home. No, I Can't Pick Up Your Child. Subtitled People Who Work From Home Are Targets for Favors, Jeffrey Zaslow gets right to the point: "To friends, neighbors and community groups, stay-at-homers look like easy marks for all kinds of requests. But many of those at home are now saying they've had enough." Women in the home are tired of being repeatedly asked for "favors" such as providing childcare, transportation, picking up groceries, and walking dogs for people who work outside the home because those in the workplace think women in the home have the "time" and wouldn't mind helping out someone else.

For stay-at-home and work-at-home mothers, that statement is nothing new. The fact that it's being written in a national newspaper, however, is.

The article quickly makes the distinction between helping others out in an emergency or agreeing to help out from time to time, and being expected to do things frequently because the person happens to be "available." Examples given were mothers being listed as a neighbor's child's emergency contact at school without being asked first; work-outside-the-home mothers expecting that an at-home mother can just pick up her child every day after school because the at-home mother will be there anyway; and buying another's groceries.

"Diane Fitzpatrick works from home. To certain friends, neighbors and community groups, that means she's available." The opening paragraph reads like a stunning revelation and a shock to the senses, as though others reading this piece could not conceive of such a thing. Well, perhaps they can't...after all, the Wall Street Journal's own media kit states that it is "the world's leading business publication," with the general demographic readership reported to be eighty-one percent male and nineteen-percent female. Business men do not typically relate to the homemaker experience, nor do they place much stock in the value of a woman at home, at least in economic terms. It's been widely discussed in books, academic studies, blogs, churches, and feminist groups that, while it is acknowledged verbally that mothers have tough jobs, the perception is mothers do not have the skills of the business person, the economic worth of a person employed outside the home, or the pressures of having to get anything done. So, perhaps, to reveal it isn't true that "working at home = availability to those working outside the home" does have some shock value. For me, however, the sentences had a "well, duh," type of impression.

What would compel a business newspaper such as the Wall Street Journal to report on stay-at-home/work-at-home mothers' frustrations of being the working world's go-to people for unpaid labor? Why would the editors of the paper feel that this would be a piece that would appeal to its readers--predominately male, with an average age of fifty-five, and a white-collar worker?

It's not about a sudden interest in the welfare and working conditions of at-home mothers. The reason is, in the words of James Carville, "the economy, stupid."

There are two points in the article that suggest the sudden interest in at-home women is economically motivated.

First, we have this statement, which stands alone as the entire third paragraph of the article: "But now, thanks in part to the Internet, a doormat rebellion is under way." [Italics added.]

As I write this, hundreds of women and as many companies are converging in New York to attend BlogHer 2010. While the conference is not just for the "mommy blogger," a significant number of attendees are women and mothers. A report by Social Media Today lists the many recent studies that indicate that women dominate social media, and Nielsen states that women are responsible for sixty-five percent of global consumer spending with incomes doubling twice the global GDP. More women than men use Facebook and Twitter as they use their natural abilities as communicators to reach out and network with other women with similar interests across the world. For the first time, women are viewed as having the true power to influence the success of any business by her their patronage and what they have to say about products in social media. Couple that with the decline in print media and the prevalence of women bloggers, and, suddenly, what women say and do means more than when they were merely "soccer moms." Businesses need mothers.

And mothers, as businesses are aware, are, on the whole, savvy educated women who do not like being talked down to as though they should be grateful to have a man caring for them while they get to do their hobby-businesses from home, or care for the children in between watching soap operas. No, women are smart. Women are busy. And women are not going to be taken advantage of any longer.

The "doormat revolution" is not just about refusing to provide free labor to others in the guise of a "favor," but that women are encouraging each other, via the Internet (and other venues, to be sure), to respect themselves across the board. With this respect comes rejection of not just the idea that they are obligated to provide services to others at all times due to their "blessings" of being able to be home, but that they need to take disrespect from others.

If businesses want to succeed, they need to pay attention to women. And, as the Wall Street Journal reports, women have a few axes to grind when it comes to establishing their worth.

The next point the article addresses is the number of people who, having been laid-off, are joining those who already have started their own businesses out of their homes. The article discusses the disruption frequent requests from others causes the business person. Disruption in business is not a good thing for the bottom line. Both revenue and productivity suffer. In a faltering recovery, struggling revenues and productivity are not a good thing. This negative attitude towards at-home workers is not good for the economy. And, as the perpetrators in this story are those people working outside the home, the article stands to inform it readers that, not only is this practice of taking advantage of the at-home mother disrepectful, but it's harmful to economic development.

I admit that I may be adding my own spin to the article here, but I do wonder if I'm reading too much into it to think that there's a message here: cut it out.

Certainly, this article is not a major revelation about what goes on in some relationships between at-home mothers and business people, nor will it be the catalist that brings change to all mothers everywhere. It is nice, however, to see the signs that we women are making beneficial changes. It's gratifying to find some evidence of our successes showing up in the media. And it's nice to see an article reporting that women are increasingly self-respectful.

If you didn't think our work makes a difference beyond what we give our families, think again.

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