Is it getting old? My husband feels like some of the activism and fervor for “women” is diffuse, unfocused, maybe a little misplaced. I’m paraphrasing, and will come back and clarify if I misspoke. But I understand that position. American women, speaking generally, have so many freedoms, today. Opportunities their grandmothers would be dazzled by, and that women in many other parts of the world will not see in their lifetimes. Yes.
But one thing I’ve found to be a huge obstacle in my white, middle-class life as a mother is this: I have become the one in our family that engages in hours upon hours of unpaid work; work that is unseen, unmanaged, receives no raises or accolades, and is mostly solitary. I know I complain about it a lot, and am a real bitch for doing so, since it’s something I can “afford” to do—many women don’t have partners who make enough money for them to stay home and do unpaid work for the family (take care of children, make meals, etc.). Most of the poorest women in the world do heavy shares of unpaid work (taking care of children, the family, food, housework) WHILST returning to paid work. I’m lucky, and feel rich most of the time. But the fact that my work is difficult…and yet does not get the kind of honor, in our money/career-driven society, that paid work gets, has been hard for me to process.
I’m not sitting around wishing I could get medals for wiping butts and picking dirty clothes up off the floor. I’m not cleaning the fifth mess of the day off the kitchen floor with gritted teeth, so bitter that I can’t get a raise for this. I don’t walk into the tenth cloud of the day of baby whining, baby songs, baby questions, baby toys, and baby-throwing-a-crying-fit-in-the-middle-of-the road-while-cars-are-waiting-for-us-to-cross, jockeying inwardly for First Prize in Enduring Brain-Deadness. Nope. I’ve moved into what I truly believe is a healthy appreciation for the work I “get” to do. I’m finally mentally and physically healthy enough to find that the joy of being a mother is simply enveloping, simply transformative—thank God. Bye, PPD.
HOWSOMEVER. It is impossible for my husband to understand the work I do all day, since he hasn’t experienced it firsthand, and since I can’t explain why taking care of a baby/toddler should be so difficult that I just can’t get to the sixth kitchen floor mess, or clean the bathroom, or get to the dishes in the sink, there’s a lot he just can’t understand about my daily work. I’ve done a terrible job of trying to explain it to him. Not because he doesn’t care or want to know, but because I just find it hard to articulate why this job is so hard. And I’ve been unwell enough that we now have a track record of pretty awful fights originating with this very issue: Why is the house such a mess? What did I do all day???? Marriage 101: Fights with the purpose of showing that one’s work is more difficult than one’s spouse’s work are unproductive and there is no moral high ground to retreat to when things get loud. Make a note of that.
So a lot of the work I do at home every day continues to feel invisible to everyone in my life … but me. (And I suck enough at Peaceful Joyful Parenting that the idea of this being my & my daughter’s “secret life” doesn’t really do it for me, either.)
But when I come to today—International Women’s Day—and re-watch Hillary Clinton’s iconic “Women’s rights are human rights” speech, and remember that billions of other women are walking our common path, doing paid work for public view, and unpaid work that’s hidden deep in the underground of history, I can do my work with a sense of community and support. Even if I don’t participate in the strike. I can honor and advocate for societal changes that will support women and the work we do: like paid parental leave, which will benefit fathers too, who need it and often don’t get it. Like equal pay for equal work, and a recognition that mothers can and should contribute their skills and knowledge to the “workforce,” with more help from employers. Like childcare not COSTING A SHIT-TON and basically being unaffordable for most people. I could go on. These are causes I stand up for.
Today I’m working: I’ll be taking care of my daughter at home this afternoon. Probably doing some cool stuff like looking for our favorite snails under our favorite snail-hiding rocks. I’ll be working for a couple hours at my place of employment (notice how this phrase implies that anywhere I’m not being paid, I’m not working? Thanks ‘merica.), Care of the Earth Community Farm, which is owned and run by a woman and her husband, and is shaped and buoyed by her generous vision and principles—I’m inspired by her and her husband every day. I’ll also be doing some unpaid volunteer work for a nonprofit, Nourish Knoxville, that does excellent work and is steered by another hard-working and visionary woman. These women, and all women who do good work, I want to honor today…with my work.
And yes—it is the job of a feminist to honor women, and work for equal rights and opportunity, and it is also a job of feminism to recognize the value of ALL peoples’ work, including that of people of color, lgbtq people, fathers, indigenous people, veterans, etc. When there are days to honor the paid & unpaid work of another group, I want to hear about it, and participate. It’s not the job of feminists to ignore other groups who need recognition. I always feel like that goes without saying, but I think I’m wrong about that. There’s so much pushback that I’ve experienced, in the past couple of years, against “feminism” that I do see the need to be as clear as I possibly can about what I mean.
Go forth and strike; alternately, go forth and work. Either way, know that your work has iceberg-like value: only 10% is on top.
P.S.! A shout-out to the women who organized and continue to run the childcare programs at First Presbyterian Church and Washington Pike United Methodist—these programs run (so lovingly and well!) on a shoestring, and have impacted my life deeply. More generous women for which I am SO thankful.