What is work? Why do we value one type of work and not another? What are we teaching our children about work?
“It’s All Hard Work,” my recent essay published in MUTHA Magazine, explores the day-to-day of raising a kid, teaching, homemaking, and trying to find peace in the middle of it all, which can feel like a real challenge sometimes given how much work there is to do. And this is how I feel with a partner who does laundry, shuttles pets to the vet, drops kids off at daycare, and even cooks. Can’t imagine parenting with a partner who doesn’t contribute like this!
But the sad truth is, many people around the world still believe that at-home work is “women’s work,” despite the fact many women work outside the home. More insidiously, this line of thinking enforces the gender binary while erasing the male, transgendered, and nonbinary folk who contribute to the housework and/or stay at home with their children. It also perpetrates the false idea that gender somehow affects a person’s ability to wash a dish, fry an egg, or change a diaper.
Another false idea that too many people still believe: at-home work doesn’t contribute to our economy. What bullshit! People who do this at-home work are enabling other people to do their work; no one can focus in an office with unsupervised toddlers running around, no one can wear smelly clothes to a meeting, and no one can complete any kind of work without eating. If someone else is cooking for you, washing your clothes, and taking care of your kids, you’re presumably also more rested and thus able to work better, as you aren’t doing any of this extra work for yourself. Stay-at-home parents should be getting paid for their contributions; the fact that they aren’t isn’t a reflection on the person but rather on our society.
But an even bigger reason to call bullshit on the economy argument: people DO get paid for this work!
Enter the intersectionality of sexism and racism. Our society devalues at-home work in part because the home was historically the woman’s domain while the professional world was created for and by men, but we also devalue it because of our country’s history of slavery. Our collective definition of work, and of worth, is based on a set of systems and beliefs created and held by colonists, mainly rich white men who owned slaves and thought \black people were not even fully human. When our founding fathers wrote our constitution and created our legal system, they were not thinking about how to protect and value all types of people and all types of work. They viewed childcare, dishwashing, housekeeping, etc, as chores that were beneath them and therefore to be completed by those who were also beneath them. To earn money for this type of work was unfathomable. Even more unfathomable was the master of the house contributing to this work.
In our post-slavery, post-Civil Rights era, things haven’t changed all that much. Most housecleaners, nannies, dishwashers, etc are BIPOC and/or immigrants. Most are working for white people of a higher socioeconomic class. Most are paid under-the-table without any benefits or protections, some not even earning minimum wage.
I’m not saying that all white men are racist, that they’re all in a position of economic stability, that they never work in any of the jobs I mentioned above. What I am saying is that our society’s racist and sexist ideas about work are learned. They are woven into our economic, legal, and politic systems and passed down generation by generation. When I observe and listen to my four-year-old child, it’s clear that he finds at-home work to be valuable, to be worthy, to be completed by every member of our household. The idea that this work is undignified and should be relegated to women and/or BIPOC is not innate. This means that we can unlearn these ideas. We can also stop teaching them to our children. But that alone isn’t enough. We also have to try to fix the damage that’s been done.
To start: tip service workers better, including those who clean your house, wash your clothes, prepare and serve your food, and take care of your kids.
Other ways to act: support organizations that demand fair wages and protections for these workers. Present your kids with a model in which everyone contributes to at-home work. Analyze our country’s inherently sexist and racist systems and elect people who will change them. Dig deep into yourself and examine your own biases. Write about it. Talk about it. Change it.
Another idea: read my essay in MUTHA. 😉