Not Eating your Seed-Corn, or, The Value of Stay-at-home Moms

I have discovered that many of the stay-at-home moms I know struggle with understanding their self-worth. This seems to be affected frequently by the way that we talk about women staying at home. Often they feel selfish, that they are a financial drain on the home. And often it seems we talk about the reason for mothers staying at home in terms of purely non-economic, emotional benefit at the expense of financial gain. We say that we as a family must sacrifice economic benefits so that the children can be nurtured in an orderly stable environment, the husband can feel cared for and the mother and wife can feel fulfilled as a full-time mother. And the way that we discuss this contributes, I believe, to these struggles with understanding their value that many stay-at-home moms seem to feel.

I don’t want to deny or downplay the emotional benefits of having a stay-at-home wife. For me, they’re huge. But I think we miss a big part of the picture, and that is the purely economic benefits. To rephrase the “one lesson of economics” of Henry Hazlitt, to understand the economic value of any activity, we must look at the impact on everyone and over the long run, rather than just the impact on a few people over the short run.

Any economy is fundamentally based on workers. We sometimes talk about the number of workers who are required to support economically unproductive members of our society, such as the disabled or retired, when we live in a welfare state. But the fact is, whether we live in a welfare state or not, unproductive members of society will need to be supported by someone. In a welfare state, that cost is evenly distributed over the whole society, whereas outside of a welfare state those costs tend to fall on the close relatives and community of those needing support. We need workers to provide the wealth to support those that cannot work for themselves, to raise the next generation, to save for hard times, to fund research and development for future growth, and to generally keep the wheels of economy rolling. A society without workers dies, and one of the major problems that is confronting developed nations and that only looks to get worse in the near future is the shortage of workers. It is because we are facing a shortage of workers that social security is becoming such a problem.

I’m not sure what the actual statistics are, but I’m guessing that not many will disagree with me when I assert that mothers who stay at home tend to have more children than mothers who work. It’s quite taxing to raise children, and the two-income families I am familiar with tend to have two or three children, or even less. Single income families, on the other hand, seem frequently to have multiple children- four or more. Simply looking at this trend alone reveals something important about what a mother contributes to her society. Mothers who bore their husbands many children used to be praised. And there’s a simple, straightforward reason- those mothers were adding a great deal of wealth to their society and to their families. The mother herself could add only her own direct productive capacity to the wealth of her family and her society. But by procreating, that mother can multiply that productive value two, three, or four times. But here’s the kicker- she does not add that value to her family immediately, and the value to her family and society will be diffused as a wider general benefit instead of a benefit focused only on her immediate family.

Societies have often recognized the value of people engaging in activities which benefit the society as a whole but benefit the individual either negligibly, not immediately or perhaps even cost him. So our society encourages people not to litter, because there is a small cost associated with not littering (the time required to find a trash can) and that cost is borne directly by the individual. On the other hand, the benefit of not littering, while large (a clean community), is not immediately seen and not borne only by a single individual, but spread out. One person littering does not hurt anyone much. But a thousand people littering hurts everyone a great deal. And so society praises the one who does not litter and condemns the one who does, to try to encourage people to behave in ways that benefit everyone, even if there is a short-term sacrifice. And that is why motherhood used to be praised. Mothers add a great deal of wealth both to their families and to their societies, but this wealth is diffuse and long-term while the sacrifice is focused and short-term. But somewhere along the line we lost sight of that benefit, and stopped talking about it. And instead, we encouraged mothers to leave their home and go out and work, for the immediate and focused benefit that they could gain, instead of staying at home and raising lots of kids for the long term, community-wide benefit that could be gained.

This argument I’m making here only addresses the quantity of workers produced by a stay-at-home mom as opposed to a working mom. It doesn’t even address the issue of the quality of those workers which I think is likely a factor as well.

There is an old proverb about not eating your seed corn. A farmer would buy corn to grow a crop, but perhaps in the immediate present there would be a shortage of food and he would be tempted to eat his seed corn. But if he did, it likely meant the end, because then there would be no crop. The farmer would gain an immediate benefit (food) but at the long-term cost of the loss of the harvest. And so the farmer instead ought to try to somehow scrape by so that he can plant the corn and reap the harvest in the future.

I am afraid that America and the west, over the last generation or so, has been eating our seed corn. We have encouraged women to work instead of raising chldren. We reaped the immediate economic benefits of their labor, but we are raising fewer and fewer workers for the next generation. And now there is some very thorny economic problems looming on our horizon as a result. We need to stop eating our seed corn and start thinking about the whole society and the long term, instead of focusing only on our own immediate benefit. And the easiest way to start doing that is to start recognizing the high value of our stay-at-home moms, and telling them so, frequently.

UPDATE: One thing I want to make clear- I know that there are a lot of different situations that people are in that require a lot of different approaches. I’m not saying that every woman ought to stay at home, or that every couple should have four or more kids. I’m just saying I think we should recognize the value of those who do.

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