is parenting a profession?

This week I’m helping to host a gathering of theologians and pastors around vocation and the professions. We’ll explore how to develop a theology of vocation for professions and how to help parishes and congregations engage professionals around their vocations.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I love the topic of vocation. Figuring out what it means that each of us is called by God to a way of life, a kind of work, a multiplicity of relationships is quite an adventure, one that I’m grateful my own work allows me to be part of.

It will also come as no surprise that much of what I write about on this blog touches on the vocation of parenting. In my humble opinion, it’s a vocation that doesn’t receive enough time or attention in the world of theology, in the world of the church, or in the world at large. So I think developing a richer spirituality of parenting is an important calling in itself.

But here’s an aspect of the vocation to parenting that I hadn’t considered until I began to prepare for this week’s seminar: is parenting a profession, as well as a vocation?

My initial response to the question was no. Parenting is fundamentally about a relationship, much like marriage. The commitment and love involved in that relationship aren’t a “profession” in the way we normally understand the term. Vocational, yes; hard work, certainly. But professional? No.

And yet all around me – from parenting magazines to proud stay-at-home-moms’ testimonials – I saw evidence that many people thought differently. That parenting was indeed a profession. That it deserved recognition as such.

I even came across a 2005 essay from one of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, in which she described the cultural shifts which brought about this phenomenon of parenting-as-profession:

We live in a perfection society now, in which it is possible to make our bodies last longer, to manipulate our faces so the lines of laughter and distress are wiped out. We believe in the illusion of control, and nowhere has that become more powerful–and more pernicious–than in the phenomenon of manic motherhood. What the child-care guru D. W. Winnicott once called “the ordinary devoted mother” is no longer good enough. Instead there is an ober-mom who bounces from soccer field to school fair to play date until she falls into bed at the end of the day, exhausted, her life somewhere between the Stations of the Cross and a decathlon.

…quicker than you could say nanny cam, books appeared, seminars were held and modern motherhood was codified as a profession. Professionalized for women who didn’t work outside the home: if they were giving up such great opportunities, then the tending of kids needed to be made into an all-encompassing job. Professionalized for women who had paying jobs out in the world: to show that their work was not bad for their kids, they had to take child rearing as seriously as dealmaking.

All of this made me think. Perhaps the question isn’t as clear as I first thought.

Beyond the doctors and lawyers that the word “profession” flashes into our minds, can we expand the concept to include parenting? After all, we’ve all heard the arguments that if anyone other than the parent (e.g., a nanny) does the work, it’s professional; it deserves fair pay and good working conditions; it can be the work of a career. So does the fundamental relationship at the heart of parenting really mean that the work itself can’t be considered a profession?

Consider, for example, this working definition that our seminar will be using this week:

A professional is someone who:

  1. professes a body of knowledge,
  2. engages in skillful, competent practice,
  3. on behalf of others,
  4. in the setting of colleagues,
  5. for the purposes of serving the common good.

One could argue, quite convincingly, that parenting meets these criteria.

  1. Possesses a body of knowledge? You better believe it. And bodily knowledge at that. Starting with how to comfort a crying newborn, feed a fussy baby, temper a tantruming toddler. To say nothing of the knowledge it takes to help a child succeed in school, to discern when a teenager needs help, to guide another human being in learning to make their way in the world. Parenting knowledge is practical, embodied, tried and tested. It is specific and situational, speaking to each child’s needs, as well as universally useful, passed down through generations.
  2. Engages in skillful, competent practice? Just think of the varied skills it takes to parent: feeding, soothing, diapering. Washing, cooking, driving. Teaching, healing, disciplining. And years of practice certainly make for competence in many areas. The learning curve is steep, but we (hopefully) make some progress along the way.
  3. On behalf of others? A gimme. The work of mothering and fathering is certainly not done for self-edification, to get your kicks. It’s dirty, demanding, exhausting work done out of love (or sheer responsibility) for another. It requires the gift of self, over and over again, often without thanks or even recognition. It’s all about the other.
  4. In the setting of colleagues? This one seems harder to affirm at first glance. After all, the work of parenting can be terribly isolating and lonely. Stay-at-home parents often crave conversation with another adult. Parents who work outside the home can be strapped for time to forge friendships with others in their situation. All of us wonder if we’re “doing it right” as we try to navigate uncharted waters on our own. But just as I was about to shoot down this part of the professional’s definition, I remembered this blog post I once read about a mother’s “co-workers,” which reminded me that colleagues don’t necessarily need to share cubicles. I’ve been blessed with many friends and role models who are helping me learn through this work of parenting, and I’d quickly call them co-workers, albeit in a less traditional sense. And it’s equally important to keep in mind that professionals who easily fit traditional definitions – doctors, lawyers, engineers – may spend their days in solitary work as well. Wiggle room on this part of the definition? You decide.
  5. For the purposes of serving the common good? Seems to be as much of a slam dunk as #3. The good of society is certainly served by parents who are dedicated to the work of raising the next generation. If we want our communities to be filled with caring, compassionate, hard-working citizens, then someone’s got to invest the time, energy, and pure elbow grease to raise those citizens from birth to age 18. The bulk of that work is assigned to parents.

And yet I’m still not wholly convinced. Something about the fundamental relationship at the core of parenting still makes me resist the idea of calling it a profession. And there are many other arguments against what I’ve written above. Parents aren’t paid for their work, as other professionals are. No formal education or training is required of them. No guild-like body of peers holds their work to official standards.

But what would it mean if parenting were considered a profession? Would it simply fuel the flame of the uber-mother that Anna Quindlen writes about (or the tiger mom or the helicopter parent or whatever trendy title we’re on to next)? Or would it give the hard work of raising children – work that easily takes as long as most adults’ careers outside the family home – the respect it deserves?

What do you think? Is parenting a profession? What difference would it make, either way?

7 thoughts on “is parenting a profession?

  1. I feel that it can be a profession. If a mother or father decides to stay home fulltime and dedicate their expertise to raising their kids, I believe it is their job (or profession) in addition to being a vocation/relationship. It deserves to be recognized as a job, despite the fact that it doesn’t come with a salary. It is work, it’s important work, and when done right, it requires skills and expertise as does any profession.

  2. You raise good points, Claire: is where we use our gifts and expertise our profession? If our work deserves to be paid (even if it isn’t), can it be a profession? Parenting isn’t the only work that raises this question – caring for one’s aging parents is another example.

  3. Oh, wow, what a fabulous post. So much food for thought! I guess it’s somewhat subjective as to whether or not it is a profession, and perhaps it’s a question of semantics, too. I tend to think it’s not a profession, because I have the word “vocation” to use in its place, and to me that’s a word that covers both the spiritual and practical dimensions. But other parents might have a broader view of the word “profession” than I do.

    Anyhow. Love the question that you raised. Thank you.

  4. One more thought: there’s a book called The Mother’s Calling that was just published by Paulist, and it seems to relate to this discussion. I haven’t read it yet, but I know the author (Julie Paavola). It’s on my summer reading list.

  5. Thanks so much for the book suggestion, Ginny. Another seminar that I’m working on is about vocation through the lifespan, and we are exploring the idea of multiple vocations, including how we balance the vocation to work with vocations to marriage, parenthood, etc. So I am always on the lookout for good books on this subject!

  6. There is a book (I can’t remember the name of the author) called “Professionalizing Motherhood” which really hit home with me. The author talked about how once her children were grown, she decided not to re-enter the workforce because she wanted to engage in the ministry of availability (meaning being available for the needs of her grandchildren, aging parents, etc). I believe that is a vocation as well, because while it’s about family relationships, it also entails a lot of hard work and is her fulltime “job”. I totally agree about the semantics issue. Vocation seems to cover it better than profession.

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