Math Geek Mom: Mother's Labor

This weekend is Labor Day, a day that signifies the end of summer and the start of the school year. Never mind that most of us have already started back to school, and that summer technically does not end for a few weeks. This weekend allows us a chance to relax and savor a few last minutes of summer before the cold weather begins to arrive. And so, as I prepare to join relatives for this long weekend, I sought out a bit of information about the history of Labor Day. Such information is all the more interesting to me, since my Ph.D.

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September 2, 2010

This weekend is Labor Day, a day that signifies the end of summer and the start of the school year. Never mind that most of us have already started back to school, and that summer technically does not end for a few weeks. This weekend allows us a chance to relax and savor a few last minutes of summer before the cold weather begins to arrive. And so, as I prepare to join relatives for this long weekend, I sought out a bit of information about the history of Labor Day. Such information is all the more interesting to me, since my Ph.D. and my research allows me to call myself a labor economist.

The history of this day can be found at a web site created by the Department of Labor. Here we learn that the holiday is more than 100 years old, and that it sought to create a “workingmen’s holiday”. While I am sure that this phrase is historically correct, it made me pause for a moment. After all, with all due respect to the “workingmen” of this country, should we not also take time to also celebrate the work that is done by the women of this country, most specifically, by the mothers of this country? Remember, all of the household production done by women and other full-time homemakers is not counted in our country’s calculation of Gross Domestic Product.

In economic circles we sometimes joke about that if a lawyer marries his housekeeper, the GDP goes down. Her work, previously done for pay, is no longer considered to be part of the formal economy, since no money is now transferred to pay for it. I don’t think that any mother needs to be convinced that household work is of value to the family and to the economy. Just think of the time spent on child care each day, from waking children to getting them dressed to feeding them and getting them to school, and it is clear that the work done by mothers are also done by some in the formal economy, from housekeepers to chefs to bus drivers. The problem arises in that when it is mothers doing the work as part of their vocation as parents, it is not as easy to measure and therefore difficult to include in a total.

When my grandfather came to the U.S. almost a century ago, he did so because he was told that here, the “streets were paved in gold.” Believing that, the teenager took a boat across the Atlantic to land in New York, where he moved in with some relatives. His relatives immediately told him (most likely in Italian) that “this is America, and in America, you work.” He took that bit of advice to heart, and began to work, succeeding in building his own business from the ground up. He stopped working only weeks before he died, when the cancer that tortured his body forced him to sell the trucks that were central to his business.

Throughout his journey through the American dream, he was accompanied by my grandmother who managed a home and the office of his business, doing things that today are usually done by people with college degrees in Business or Accounting. When my grandfather’s success was added to the GDP of his adoptive country, the work of his wife was ignored, as was the work that she did raising her own children and helping relatives and friends who needed her assistance as they bravely navigated the Great Depression. While I am immensely proud of the labor that my grandfather brought to his new found country, I am sad that we, as a country, will not recognize the work that people like my grandmother did to help make this country so great.

And so, as we hold one last barbeque this summer, I propose a topic of discussion for our family gatherings. What kind of work do some members of your family do that is not counted in the official tallies that lead to the sum we call “Gross Domestic Product”, and what can we do, as a country, to start to give official recognition to household production, work that is often done by mothers?

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