'There's No Tougher Job Than Being a Mom'

The long history of a ubiquitous statement

"There's no tougher job than being a mom." A recent Parents magazine poll found that 92 percent of mothers agree with the statement.

The statement is easy to ridicule when you think about how challenging some non-mom jobs are, as Jill Filipovic pointed out on Twitter:

Comedian Bill Burr has taken issue with the "mom is the most difficult job on the planet" line in the past on similar grounds, comparing mothering to being a coal-miner:

What would you rather be doing: drilling to the center of the Earth, shaking hands with the Devil? Every time there's a rumble in the ground you're waiting for the whole thing to collapse down on you so they can write that folk song about you? Or would you rather be up in the sunshine, running around with a couple of toddlers that you can send to bed anytime you want?

Nevertheless, the sentiment is ubiquitous. After one of his 2012 campaign surrogates criticized Ann Romney because she'd "never worked a day in her life," President Obama told an Iowa TV station "there's no tougher job than being a mom." Oprah Winfrey regularly trots out a similar phrase: "I always say moms have the toughest job in the world if you're doing it right," she says on her website. Procter & Gamble crafted a huge, award-winning Olympics ad campaign around the idea that "Being a mom is the hardest job in the world. But it's also the best."

One of the earliest examples of this mom-in-chief cheerleading comes not from a politician or a celebrity or a corporation, but from a writer and lay theologian. In 1955, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a stay-at-home mother encouraging her not to see her work as futile, but rather as deeply valuable:

I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife's work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world.

Notice that Lewis says being a mother is the "most important" work, not "toughest" or "most difficult." The distinction is significant. It doesn't do mothers any favors to overemphasize the hard work that goes into being a mom--the claim is too easy to ridicule and disprove. And anyway what many moms find undesirable about parenting is how un-stimulating it is: how repetitive and numbing it can be, especially compared with paid work outside the home. Emphasizing the importance of caring for children and running a household sticks closer to the truth--and may even inspire dads as well as moms to take it seriously.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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