I was just doing some washing up when the question of work entered my head. No, I hear you groan. I am on this blog because I want to see pretty things and find some free hexagonal graph paper! I don’t want to ponder the wider implications of work, women’s lot in society and economics! Fear not, reader. Normal broadcasting will soon resume.
I had my baby strapped to me in a sling and a lot of things to do. Washing, cleaning, picking vegetables and fruit, cooking, caring for children, crafting… and I don’t get paid for it. I often get asked about ‘going back to work.’ Am I working now? I am not suggestig I do get paid for what I do currently (By whom? How much? Might child benefit payments might be considered into the equation?) but it struck me that the low status of mothering and childrearing is indeed linked to money. Money is definitely power. One might get paid to wash pots and pans, clean houses, or raise other people’s children, and then these occupations would class as ‘work.’ But it’s still very low status work, considered more suitable for students, immigrants, women.
The monetary and economic value of breastfeeding has actually been calculated. Gabrielle Palmer’s excellent chapter on the matter (The Politics of Breastfeeding) makes for fascinating reading. Oh yawn. Not bloody breastfeeding again. But if all babies in the UK were breastfed for three months, the NHS would save £50 million per year on the treatment of just one illness, gastroenteritis. (Palmer 2009:329) Phrasing breastfeeding and childrearing in terms of monetary value might actually do little to assist the argument that we need a new way of looking at, and valuing, things, that is to say not purely in terms of money. But if it is a language the powerful understand, then the financial worth of women’s work might assist in the progression of its status.
Palmer also writes movingly of a couple in rural Guatemala she spent time with. Subsistence farmers who do little paid labour, they live modestly, contribute to the local community, and spend very little. Palmer writes about how their lives, which are hard-working, dignified and of great value to the health and ecology of their country, do not ‘count.’ Only their occasional paid labour and meagre expenditure on soap, candles and sugar “mean anything to economists.” Meanwhile, Palmer points out, the local narco baron over the hill has a large mansion, keeps cattle, servants and buys furniture and luxuries, and his contribution is counted. (Palmer 2009:333) Hmmm.
I was also thinking about the pejorative meaning of ‘work.’ When did it acquire such status? When did we start ‘living for the weekend’ and dreading Monday mornings? I suppose in pre-industrial society (when things, I do agree, were not all rosy loveliness and mellow bucolic scenes, but still different enough to merit examination), there wasn’t a separation of ‘work’ from ‘leisure.’ If the home is the ‘workplace’ and your land is your factory, it all must blur into one. In John Seymour’s (for me, escapist!) text ‘The New Complete Book of Self Sufficiency,’ he writes of a woman who too questions this nasty side to ‘work.’ When told that her life sounded like a lot of hard work, she laughs and replies that nobody ever told her then that there was anything wrong with work. Seymour himself speaks of how he has spent the whole day at his plough and been truly sad when it is time to stop. (Seymour 2003:12) I think we all know what it feels like to fall asleep after a hard day’s physical labour. It is such a satisfying, just sleep.
Childrearing, the status of women, farming, economics, issues of work and worth… big questions. Really big. Enough to be getting along with. And work: I really must do some.
And if you have made it this far, congratulations. Here’s your reward!