There is a conversation that I’ve had over and over since beginning life as a SAHM. It takes on a number of variations but they generally boil down to the same sentiment. I don’t know how you do it. I could never!
I’ve had this conversation enough times with enough different people to give me the impression that I don’t quite struggle with this life the way that I’m supposed to. It’s not that I haven’t experienced firsthand the agony of never-ending days with young children. It’s not that I don’t find some of the work to be repetitive, uninspiring and exhausting. Or that I’m not forced to recognize that sometimes I don’t actually know what I’m doing. It’s not that I’m not sorry to be missing out on a long list of things because I simply don’t have the time. It’s not even that I am unaware of the nearly nonexistent opportunities for recognition or advancement. But I have encountered every one of those frustrations in other jobs. So what is it that makes this particular occupation so unique in so many people’s eyes? Why is it that I see things differently?
The real reason that I’ve been able to spend several years of my life dedicated more or less exclusively to the running of my family without losing my mind entirely is that I place a high value on what I do. I am fully aware that raising children falls clearly into the category of work that is not valued by our society. But I happen to think that sometimes society is an ass hole.
The reasons that I value this work so highly go far beyond the importance of keeping the next generation alive and well or even the opportunity to enhance my children’s potential for “success”. In the workings of day-to-day family life I see the relationships and decisions that establish nothing less than the foundation of culture, the guiding force behind all human endeavors. On the best of days, I see the work that I do to teach my children to respect other living beings as my greatest contribution to the building of a society built on those principles. When the stars align, I can see in the simple acts of watering carrot seeds or cooking dinner my contribution to developing a better food system. In an hour freely given, I can see how the education of our children and the institutions that provide it rely heavily on the unpaid work of those who care about them. And in the minor accounting of extra portions for an ill neighbor, I can be part of an alternative system of health care.
This is not an attempt to weigh in on the mommy wars. It is an attempt to weigh in on the value of work that is too often overlooked. In reality, I don’t think that any of it should be left to any one gender or individual, biology permitting. G and I have never seen our arrangement during the past few years as ideal and I am glad that we are working toward a set-up that provides a better balance. But I am also convinced that one of the reasons that it is not easily achieved is that we belong to a culture that doesn’t quite see things the way we do.
And I think that one of the major factors behind this difference in opinion is the fact that the majority of this work takes place outside of the capitalist market system. Promoting a workforce that both fails to receive a paycheck AND fails to consume a number of services by performing work that could be outsourced is a recipe for reducing growth and tax revenue. Simply put, this “pink market”** is a problem for our economy.
And yet, I would argue, a system of labor that allows people to focus on the immediate needs of their families and communities is capable of promoting social goods that the market economy simply can’t take into consideration. And it will tend to avoid many of those negative consequences that capital economies have no incentive to address. I wouldn’t advocate for the total demise of the capitalist system, even if I thought that were a viable possibility. But I do advocate for growth of an alternative system because I think the two can function in complement.
There is a notion that the ability to dedicate one’s time toward the well being of one’s community is selfish and decadent, a domain reserved only for the very wealthy. This criticism is not unfounded, especially given the fact that it is by necessity subsidized by the market economy. But it is also true that outsourcing of this work depends almost entirely on low wage labor, which is a major contributor to poverty in the first place.
I know that most people see absolutely nothing revolutionary in dedicating time to snack preparation and storytelling. But it may be exactly this concept that makes it so worthwhile to me.
Just don’t ask me to find anything of value in cleaning urine off the bathroom floor.
* My thanks to the Canadians for generously “lending” me this title.
**This term doesn’t actually exist in this context and doesn’t do me any good in terms of my goal to dissociate this work with women. But I can’t deny that it has traditionally been a female domain and the black market is the only other alternative market that came to mind.