National Nurses Week 2013: Stop Undervaluing the Work Of Nurses

National Nurses Week culminated with Mother’s Day this year, and left me on double duty as a grateful daughter of a Labor & Delivery Nurse.

But growing up, I didn’t think very highly of my mother’s career as a caretaker. I had trouble identifying with her ambitions and life choices because they seemed so different from my own. I envisioned a future in which I wore black pencil skirt suits to work instead of the pale blue scrubs she wore home from the hospital. I could see myself, heels clicking down Madison Avenue with a Starbucks in one hand and suitcase in the other as I went off to conquer the globe.

My mother graduated from nursing school at age 22, and by 29 she had my older brother and me to care for as well. With my father a recent law school grad, she was working nights at a nursing home to help support our growing household. She tells us stories from this era as a veteran would, as tales of survival, hardship, and exhausting sacrifice.

Now, at 25 myself, that childhood vision of my future isn’t far from reality. After working on campaigns and lobbying for health care reform, I’ve spent the last few years as a consultant helping candidates and organizations harness the power of the internet. Lots of meetings. Lots of pencil skirts. Lots of heels click-clicking down urban sidewalks.

It was only recently that I came to understand and appreciate the leadership demonstrated through my mother’s career as a full-time caretaker.

Like most of us, I was conditioned to undervalue caretaker roles. In Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for the Ethic of Care, Joan Tronto illustrates the variety of ways in which society degrades the importance of care as a means to maintain the status quo for those in positions of power. Through media and culture, we receive messages that tell us working to care for children, the elderly, or the sick is somehow less important than more abstract forms of helping people, like advocating in Congress, battling disease in the lab, and winning cases in the courtroom.

The economics tells the same story. As we round the corner out of the Great Recession, a study published by U.S. News & World Report last month found the ten most underpaid jobs in America include assisted living coordinators who care for the elderly, daycare directors, office nurses, social workers, and paramedics.

When I was 10 and my older brother was 11, my parents doubled their expenses at home by having two more children, one year apart from each other. While I’m certain my younger siblings weren’t part of my parents’ initial plans, they made life joyous and exciting for everyone — and stressful for my mom and dad. Despite these challenges, my mother continuously demonstrated to me the key qualities of a seasoned caretaker — patience, compassion, and listening — which I still draw from today.

By showing me what care looks like, my mother taught me what leadership looks like. When my 3-year-old sister wasn’t measuring the ingredients for a recipe exactly as I could, my mother encouraged me to let her be imperfect.

“You have to let her do it, Emilie,” she’d tell me, “because even if it isn’t exactly right, it’s how she’ll learn.”

If that isn’t a valuable lesson on management, I don’t know what is.

Earlier this month, my mother received an award singling her out among all the nurses in her hospital’s network for outstanding achievement. In addition to caring for her “two pairs” of kids and helping other families bring their children into this world, my mother spent the last decade helping establish her hospital’s International Medical Mission.

Since 2001, teams have traveled to 4 countries on 27 missions with 754 volunteers who use personal vacation time and finance their own travel. My mother plays an instrumental role in acquiring and organizing all the donated medical equipment, coordinating volunteers, and then setting up the makeshift hospitals and delivering care once on site. Thus far they’ve changed 4,880 lives in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and South America.

I am a big believer in Sheryl Sandberg’s premises in Lean In, in which she asserts that women must own up to and overcome the ways in which we hold ourselves back from taking on leadership roles. But we need to acknowledge that the images and social queues that dictate what qualifies as a woman in leadership are completely off.

My mother is a leader. She managed a 6-person household, made whole the lives of countless families whose children she helped bring into this world, and continues to impact the lives of families thousands of miles away who have few alternative resources for care.

I’m optimistic that with more men entering the field of nursing, we may evolve our thinking about caretaker roles on the whole. And yet I must acknowledge that male nurses make on average nearly $10,000 more per year than female nurses do, according to a new Census report. So even while caretakers are broadly undervalued by the American economy, the men assuming these roles are less undervalued. Clearly, we still have work to do. We must lean in to leadership in its many forms.

Because only once we can collectively imagine a leader that looks different from the suit-wearing male executive that we’re conditioned to conjure in our mind’s eye, can we recognize the achievements of the leaders amongst us.

After all, they might be your very own mother.