What grows personally wearisome is that this line of thought -- that staying home to raise children and keep house is not "work" -- suggests that these things are not because *I* am doing them. The maintenance of children would be work if I were paying someone else to do it; the education of children would be work if I were paying someone else to do it; the business of cleaning and cooking and generally managing a household would attain the status of "work" if I employed a butler, laundress, maid, and cook, but loses this distinction because I perform these activities in my own home for my own benefit and that of my family.
This raises the question of what, exactly, is work. Activity that receives financial compensation? Activity that takes one away from family? Activity done outside the home? Activity requiring management, external accountability, or special training?
Perhaps one of the reasons for the perception of stay-at-home mothers as non-working members of society is that they do things that have to be done even by people who work. Everyone's laundry has to be done; everyone needs groceries. All children need care and education. It's hardly surprising that a woman who, after a long day at work, drags herself to the store and feeds the kids and puts them to bed, might think, "Boy, women who stay at home really have it easy. Why should they complain when I do everything they do, and still put in a full day of work?"
This is a question that deserves to be answered, even if it's not an accurate description of the life of stay-at-home mothers (especially if they teach their children at home as well). The value of what women who stay at home do is not primarily monetary, though there is a large financial advantage in having an adult in a family whose time is dedicated to making the family and household run smoothly. But the stay-at-home mother is able to tailor her work to fit the family's specific needs and style. I know exactly where the stains in all the laundry are, because I'm here when the baby spills something on herself or the boy goes rolling down the grassy hill. I have the time to make meals that cost-efficient, nutritious, and personalized to my family's taste. All these are benefits that it would be very difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to replace were I not at home most of the day.
But these are all things that could be done competently by a live-in housekeeper, and even lovingly by a relative. The true value of being at home with my children is that I am the one who is raising them. At every point, whether we're doing schoolwork or cleaning or reading or just hanging around, they're absorbing my values and culture, not that of the daycare staff or the nanny or the neighbor down the street. They're also absorbing my flaws -- any child who takes after me will be a mediocre housekeeper and an inveterate procrastinator -- but it's fine with me that my children have a safe and loving environment in which to encounter the idea that adults aren't perfect. If children are a gift from God, then I see it as my job to be a gift back to them, in the most personalized and effective way possible.
Not every mother is able to stay at home with her children, and not every woman wants that lifestyle, but it's absurd for anyone to denigrate the work of a stay-at-home mother, as if the inherent desire of a woman to raise and care for her own children was the height of decadence and luxury.
UPDATE: Apropos of the discussion of what stay-at-home mothers add to the economy,Rebecca Ryskind Teti reiterates the point she made in her chapter of Style, Sex, and Substance.
The economy exists to be sure each household has what it needs. What that requires may look different for each household (does it make more sense for us to outsource childcare or provide it ourselves?), but it’s the flourishing of the human person that is the point. Is someone sneering at you for not working outside the home? Smile. They work for you!
...The human person is of course not reducible to a mere “worker.” Still, in strictly economic terms, people are our most valuable economic resource and the family is not a nostalgic religious notion, but also the most essential engine of the economy. Stay-at-home moms are not outside the economy, they’re at the heart of it.