Matthias Doepke & Fabrizio Zilibotti: The economics of motherhood

EconomicsIn times of heightened economic anxiety, for many American families the celebration of Mother’s Day this weekend will provide a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life. At least for this one day, love and the close bond between mothers and their children take center stage, and worries about money, careers, and other economic concerns are put on hold. Indeed, one reason that there is a special celebration for mothers is precisely that motherhood lacks the formal recognition that the market economy bestows on other activities: mothers do not draw official salaries, acquire fancy job titles, or advance within a corporate hierarchy. Instead, motherhood is an unpaid “labor of love,” and hence a phenomenon where the laws of economics seemingly do not apply.

Yet on closer inspection, even motherhood does have an undeniable economic dimension. To start, there is the economic impact of the celebration of Mother’s Day itself. Florists, greeting card companies, and restaurants serving brunch will do brisk business, and many consider the holiday at risk of becoming overly commercialized.

But the economic roots of motherhood go much deeper than that. Economic forces helped shape the role of motherhood in society, and are in large part responsible for two major transformations in how Western society conceives of the meaning and importance of motherhood.

The first of these transformations started with the Industrial Revolution, and continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mothers always had a special role in nurturing children, particularly so for the infants who needed to be breastfed. However, in earlier times the separation between the roles of mothers and fathers was less sharp than later on. Work and home life played out in the same place, say, the family’s farm or artisanal workshop, and children grew up in close proximity to both parents and other family members. Children also started to work from a young age, so that especially boys soon spent more time with their fathers than their mothers.

The Industrial Revolution sharpened the division between mothers’ and fathers’ roles in the family. The introduction of factories and the rise of commuting that followed the spread of railways and streetcars separated the work and home spheres. While men were pushed into the role of exclusive economic provider, women were expected to focus on the home. In addition, as the industrial economy created demand for workers who could read and write, providing children with a proper education became an important aim for most families, and the responsibility for this fell squarely on the mothers. The result was what historians term the “Cult of Domesticity,” a new value system that emphasized the role of women as mothers and educators and discouraged working outside the home.

While motherhood was idolized, mothers were also pushed out of the labor force. In addition to the new cultural norms against working mothers, outright discrimination such as the “marriage bars” that excluded married women from many professions also contributed to defining women more exclusively through their role as mothers. By the early twentieth century, it had become rare for married women with children to be working. It was in this era of idealized motherhood but also strictly separated roles for women and men that the current incarnation of the Mother’s Day holiday in the United States was created.

The second economic transformation of motherhood started with World War II and is still ongoing today. During the war, millions of mothers joined the labor force to support the war effort while the men were fighting overseas. The women of this “Rosie the Riveter” generation demonstrated that women’s contributions do not have to be limited to the home, and many of them found enjoyment and fulfillment in being in the labor force and gaining more independence.

After the war, the traditional division of labor was reestablished to some extent. But over time, more and more women decided to continue working even after marrying and having children, and by today most women, and most mothers, are in the labor force.

In large part, this transformation in the labor market was driven by technological change. Over time, the economy shifted from agriculture and manufacturing to services, eroding men’s traditional advantage in work that rewarded physical strength. Technological change also transformed the household: modern household appliances and market alternatives to home-produced goods such as day care centers and restaurants have reduced the time required to run the household and freed up time for work.

Today, motherhood is no longer defined exclusively through caring for children, but much more so through the “having it all” challenge of combining careers and family life. Nevertheless, the impact of the older role models and cultural norms can still be felt. Notably, time use data show that women continue to bear a disproportionate share of child care work and household chores.

Hence, despite the transformed meaning of motherhood in society, there are still good reasons for a special celebration of mothers. In addition to buying flowers and chocolates, men could do even better by expressing their gratitude through putting in equal time in child care and household chores, and not just on holidays.

By familiarizing themselves with the dishwasher, diapers, and their children’s clothing needs, men could prove to be truly ahead of their time. Economic trends will continue to shape the meaning of motherhood, and fatherhood, for the next generation. Women now graduate in much larger numbers from college than men do, and in today’s knowledge economy that gives them an advantage. Women will soon be the main earners in a large fraction of families. Over time, cultural norms will adjust to this change. The current model of mothers doing most of the household work in exchange for a once-a-year celebration will gradually fade into memory, which is something to look forward to this Mother’s Day.

Matthias Doepke is professor of economics at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois. Fabrizio Zilibotti is the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. Their new book, Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids is forthcoming from Princeton University Press in February 2019.