Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is it work, and does it matter?

Reading Megan Blandford's excellent post on the mummy wars today, I noted one phrase she included as an aside, and it got me thinking. Megan wrote, "My view on motherhood is pretty clear: It's not a job, it's just life. Sometimes life is wonderful, sometimes it sucks a bit."

I wondered, as I nodded vigorously along with the rest of her post (really, she nailed it about the dreariness and predictability of the manufactured, mostly illusory mummy wars), why this particular phrase had stuck in my head. It itched away in a corner of my brain, and I re-read it three times, trying to put my finger on why. Basically, I agree with the sentiment - I probably wouldn't phrase it quite like this, but the substance isn't something that I dissent from, I thought. And yet - and yet -

After several cups of peppermint tea and a cogitation break to do craft with C, make her lunch, pay some bills, fold laundry and clean the feeelthy bathroom (the one I haven't touched in over three weeks, YES I know that is gross, SUE ME), I think I have finally worked out what nags at me, and it's a bigger question / problem. It's this:

If motherhood's not the job, then what IS the job?

How do we classify all the labour that makes up the day of a person who performs an essentially domestic / private sphere role, in an unpaid capacity? I'm not just referring to parents at home with young children here; I have a friend, who has no children, whose daily life and duties are extraordinarily similar to mine as she cares for her elderly parents in their home. Like me, she ferries people to appointments, she deals with bills and household emergencies, she cooks, she cleans, she washes clothes and strips beds and plans. She cares and comforts and reads aloud. She is firm sometimes and deals with tantrums and unreason. She gets tired and discouraged on occasion. (She also writes - it's a good outlet :-) Anyone whose work takes place in the private sphere faces this same dilemma.

How can we describe what a person does whose labour is unremunerated and, as many of my friends who work fulltime remind me, non-unique? By non-unique, they don't mean non-essential; they are getting at the reality that everyone has to eat / cook, everyone has clean a loo occasionally, everyone needs clean clothes and to pay the gas bill and to get the car fixed and so forth. Fulltime working people still have to do these things, or pay someone else to do them on their behalf. There is nothing special or individual about the household and logistical tasks that a person whose labour is at home performs; they are important tasks, certainly (try living a few months without them!) but they are rendered mostly invisible by their very ubiquity.

Of course it is pleasant and convenient to not have to do these tasks in addition to managing two fulltime paid working loads. It probably improves the quality of life of all the members of the household in many cases, including the paid working member(s), to not have to take on as much, if any, domestic labour. That is one thing that many households (such as mine) factor in, along with the cash costs of childcare for young children or elder care for parents / relatives and the intangible emotional costs of separation if that is an issue, in weighing up the value of paid work for all the adults in the house. Finding the sweet spot is never easy and it sits in a different place for every household, and changes over time. But, as is always the case, any decision comes with an opportunity cost, and a real one for domestic labourers is the lack of a way to describe, to tag, to denote what we do in any but the most fragmented, inadequate ways. (In this regard, domestic labour IS like motherhood - the words are too small, the ocean too vast, to convey it).

The logical next question, of course, is why does it matter? If there isn't a "job word" for what people who work in the home do, so what? Most people recognise that labour is involved, despite the passive-aggressive "lying around on the couch all day eating bonbons and watching soap operas" jokes that infest a certain kind of conversation (or its bleeding edge equivalent - "sit around with the iPad drinking coffee and blogging all day" :-)

I think it matters because humans are hardwired to find meaning in words and language. To know a truth, we speak its name. What then when there is no name, when an entire body of labour and effort and work and yes, passion and committment, is "just, you know, staying at home" (or, worse, as I heard a parent say to another this week at school "Oh, nothing. I do nothing")? When the words we do use - Domestic Goddess, housekeeper, carer, stay-at-home parent - are tongue-in cheek, soft, whispered, self-deprecating; words that lack force and gravitas, lack weight?

So I think that's why people claim motherhood as a job, really. Not because it is - but because parenting is one part of the life of a person whose sphere is currently domestic that does have some social recognition, some cachet. It's the part of my labour that can be described, using words that sound less small, less shrinking, less menial. It's also, in my case, the absolute reason for my labour being domestic rather than external at this point of my life.

Am I a mother? Yes. Am I doing a job called Motherhood? No, I'm not. I'm in the private sphere almost exclusively - barring a limited amount of mostly home-based contract work - and I work. I perform domestic, logistical and manual labour daily. My work is not romantic but it is pivotal to the way we currently live our lives, and it matters to me that I can speak this, with words to convey it.

I just wish I knew what they were.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a tough topic, something I've been thinking about recently. And like you, I don't consider it a job, it is just what I do. I study what should be the equivalent of full time, and I often think this is what my 'work' is these days. But even then, it's not really. When my husband leaves the house to work, nobody interrupts his day to hang a load of washing out. To change a dirty nappy. To plan what's for dinner. And yet everything I do, whether important or not is interrupted every 5 minutes.

    Before I had kids I never envisaged feeling as undervalued and unappreciated as I do most days. Think it just goes with the territory of motherhood though.

    Thanks for the post. Very thought provoking.