Why is Parenting a “Job”?

We’ve all heard it and probably said it: “Parenting is the most important job you’ll ever have.” But is parenting a “job”? My dictionary defines “job” in a variety of ways:

job (noun)

  1. a paid position of regular employment.
  2. a task or piece of work, esp. one that is paid.
    • a responsibility or duty.
    • [ in sing. ] (informal) a difficult task.
    • [ with modifier ] (informal) a procedure to improve the appearance of something, esp. an operation involving plastic surgery.
    • (informal) a crime, esp. a robbery.

The OED entry offers interesting reading (who knew that “job” could mean excrement?). Along with the typical association of work-for-pay, most of the definitions are vaguely negative and imply some form of obligation.

We can dismiss parenting as a work-for-pay job. And while parents often feel shat upon, clearly that is not what we mean when we say “Parenting is the most important job you’ll ever have.” The way some people parent borders on criminal, but parenting, I think we can agree, is not a crime. So we are left with parenting as a difficult task or responsibility or duty or obligation.

I worry that such connotations debase and mischaracterize parenting. To be sure, it is frequently difficult but it is not a task. Taking out the garbage is a task. Wiping up vomit is a task. Walking the dog is a task. Do you love and care for your children only out a sense of duty, some obligation, some responsibility? If so, I encourage you to tell your child tonight, as you put her or him to bed, “I love you out of a sense of duty. Sweet dreams.” Or, if you prefer, “I have an obligation to love you. Sleep tight.” I worry because duties, obligations, and responsibilities are typically imposed by external authorities. Parenting should not be imposed from without.

To be sure, parenting is arduous, effortful, laborious, painful, tiring on good days and exhausting on most. It is also uncertain, risky, parlous, and costly. If you’re lucky and the stars align just right, parenting is easy and fun. If you’re lucky.

When we talk about parenting as a job we risk treating it like a job. We risk reducing it to a task, an obligation, a duty, a crime, to excrement. Parenting is not the most important job I’ll ever have because, well, I don’t consider it a job.

I parent because I love #1 and #2. Love is never a job.