Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Value of Mothering

A study came out a few days ago about the monetary value of all the services that mothers provide. Presumably also fathers, but the study didn't have them participate, perhaps because Mothers' Day is approaching rapidly and it's nice to have something positive about mothers this time of the year.

The conclusions of the study are simple: Mothers are so expensive that hardly any families can afford them. I'm only half-joking here:

A full-time stay-at-home mother would earn $134,121 a year if paid for all her work, an amount similar to a top U.S. ad executive, a marketing director or a judge, according to a study released Wednesday.

A mother who works outside the home would earn an extra $85,876 annually on top of her actual wages for the work she does at home, according to the study by Waltham, Massachusetts-based compensation experts

To reach the projected pay figures, the survey calculated the earning power of the 10 jobs respondents said most closely comprise a mother's role -- housekeeper, day-care teacher, cook, computer operator, laundry machine operator, janitor, facilities manager, van driver, chief executive and psychologist.

You can go to the site and find out how much extra you deserve to be paid. Of course you won't get anything, and that's the sad bit about this study: It's meaningless because there is no actual plan to start paying mothers for the work they do. In any case, who should do the paying? People have very different opinions on that.

These kinds of studies have been done before. They suffer from a few other problems in addition to the nonexistence of any actual money payments. For example, the questions allow the respondents to record all the housework they do as part of the mother's job, but in reality only the part that is caused by the presence of children should be counted. We all do a certain amount of housework, whether we have children at home or not, and counting all that as belonging to mothering overstates the actual workload.

Another problem with the study is the way the hours spent in different ways are priced. Take the hours a mother spends counseling her children. The study prices these hours by the professional fees psychologists charge. And household management hours are priced at the going rates for upper management.

But the reason psychologists or managers earn a lot is because they have extensive training for the job. A psychologist may have a doctoral degree, and getting one takes years and lots of money. The higher salary of a psychologist is partly to compensate for these additional costs, or rather the expertise that is acquired during the expensive training. The average mother or father is not a trained psychologist and applying the rates of such is incorrect.

An additional problem has to do with the difficulty of measuring hours of household activities in this way. Not only are the estimates subjective and likely to be biased upwards rather than downwards but it's also very hard not to do double-counting. For example, if you are driving your children to a soccer game while giving them psychological advice, do you count one hour of driving and one hour of counseling within the same one-hour time segment? I suspect that most people do, because in reality we tend to multi-task in this way. But should this one hour get the salaries of both a psychologist and a chauffeur?

None of my criticisms mean that mothering wouldn't be extremely valuable, only that this way of trying to value it doesn't really work, except perhaps in a sense of cheering people up.