Diamonds and Water: The Economics of Motherhood

Diamond-WaterThe best part of my day is…

… when I manage to find a few moments to myself, in a quiet and empty house. I sit in my favorite chair and read a good book, with a cup of coffee flavored with a yummy creamer. It is calming, rejuvenating, nourishing, and…

Wait!! I mean, the best part of my day is when I pick my kids up after work! Yes! I love that moment! And then the hours at home of playtime, and reading, and homework! It’s the best part of my day!

But it often isn’t. And oh, the guilt. What mother, what working mother, says that the best part of her day is a time when she is NOT with her children?

Even though I want to finish this sentence with my first answer, I feel immediately compelled to say it’s the time with my kids. With lots of exclamation points! Because I love my time as a mom! Every day!

But we know it doesn’t always work that way. Because yes, the time at home is filled with joy and playtime, but it’s also cooking, cleaning, bathing, butt-wiping, sibling-argument mediating, homework battling… in all, not always the things that I consider to be “the best.” Those aren’t always the high quality and desirable parts of my day.

There are beautiful wonderful moments in those after work hours ~ like my son’s current practice of yelling “Mommeeeeeee!!!” when he sees me enter his preschool classroom, and then running and literally leaping into my arms. Or my daughter’s fascination with playing school when we get home, reading stories to me and my son {her students}, and conducting reading assessments on her little brother {age 4}.

But why is the BEST part of my day the time to myself?

I often relate my thinking on such subjects to philosophy, parenting research, spiritual teachings, or even historical theory. Today, I’m turning to a lesser-used analytical instrument in my social studies teacher toolbox: Economics.

I know, not my fave either, but bear with me.

Why do I consider my time to myself the best part of my day?

I think we can find an answer in the Paradox of Value, commonly referred to as the Diamond-Water Paradox. Water is absolutely necessary for life ~ we could not survive without it. Diamonds are ornamental and decorative ~ and certainly not essential to our livelihood. Yet water is inexpensive {low value}, and diamonds are quite expensive {high value}. Why are diamonds more economically valuable than water, if they are so unnecessary?

Well, obviously there is the issue of scarcity. Water is in abundant supply {in most parts of the world}, while diamonds are quite rare. With such a large supply of water, each additional ounce we consume provides very little additional satisfaction or usefulness to us {or low marginal utility, in the language of economics}. Each additional diamond we own {if we own any} provides a great deal of satisfaction, even at low quantities, because we own so few of them {high marginal utility}. See my first-ever use of a graph in a blog post:


Are you asleep yet? The economics lesson is over ~ now we’ll apply it to parenting!

Time to myself in a quiet house is quite rare. It will happen after school a few times a week, on days when I am caught up with my grading, and I am not working with students. I will take those precious 45 minutes and spend my time at home with a book in my super comfy chair, which happens to be in a dead-zone of our house where the wi-fi signal doesn’t reach, so I am completely disconnected from the needs of the world for those treasured minutes. It’s 45 minutes of uninterrupted, quiet, gorgeous, restorative me-time.

Those moments are my diamonds.

DiamondsDiamonds are sparkly, beautiful, and indulgent. Yet we needn’t feel guilty for our few pieces of bling. That gorgeous wedding diamond means so much. We didn’t buy the $10 million diamond-studded bra from Victoria’s Secret {it seriously exists, folks}. We savor our rare and valuable pieces of bejeweled ornamentation, just as I savor that small amount of time to myself, for we know they will have a huge payoff {high marginal utility}. In the case of my me-time, it  will be that I am more calm and patient with my children.

For the time with my children, even as a working mother, is abundant. While I might get 45 minutes a few days a week to myself, I figure I spend close to 900 minutes each day teaching and parenting and engaging in various and sundry life tasks. It’s time when I am constantly “in demand,” and it is time that is unpredictable. We can be playing and laughing one minute, then fights erupt the next. It’s cooking while helping with homework while doing dishes while playing superheroes.

Those moments are my water.


Water is plentiful, but absolutely necessary for life and survival. And, accordingly, it is that abundant time with my family that sustains and nourishes me. Water can be messy and destructive, as children can be. Water is, at times, mundane, super plain, boring and uninteresting. But at crucial moments it is refreshing and revitalizing.

Ultimately, we need both our water and our diamonds. Water supports and sustains us, and diamonds {even cubic zirconia works, too, as long as it’s blingy} make our lives beautiful and sparkly.

Our time to ourselves, as mothers, is so rare, but it is to be treasured. It may be “diamond” time, but I would argue that those few moments of self-care are just as nourishing and life-sustaining as water. In this case, it’s not ornamentation or indulgence, but absolutely necessary.

And our time at work, or with our children, though it may be overwhelming in its constancy and monotony, is what truly makes our lives shine. It’s our time of human connection. It’s how our spirit, our breath, is put into the world with purpose and passion.

Mothers, we should not feel guilty for wanting the diamonds. Treasuring a fine piece of jewelry because it’s pretty and meaningful and makes you feel good about yourself doesn’t mean you don’t also appreciate the necessities in life. And just because, a few times a week, the best part of your day is the rare moment in a quiet and empty house, it doesn’t mean you don’t also treasure your children and the laughter and sweetness they bring to your life.

I don’t know how economists would respond to my application of the Diamond-Water Paradox to motherhood, but I think where parenting is concerned, both the diamonds and the water provide high marginal utility.

I wonder if there’s a graph for that?


Sarah Rudell Beach

Left Brain Buddha

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