There’s a bit of a dust-up in the States over some lobbyist suggesting that Ann Romney, the wife of republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, has ‘never worked a day in her life’. A silly statement, of course, as it stands; the storm that descended was predictable, and I’m not at all interested in adding to it.
But part of the commentary has hared off along a track I do want to comment on – the idea that people are defined by their work (and pretty much exclusively by their paid work). This seems to me a highly impoverished view. It doesn’t begin to cover a person’s economic and social worth, let alone who the person really is.
By defining people by what they do for pay, we ignore huge swathes of activity that contributes to social wellbeing. When my children were little, I was privileged to be able to take time out of the paid workforce to focus on family and community. Later, I went back into the paid workforce, starting my own business (as many professional women do), because that gave me the flexibility to fit in family-centred activities.
The unpaid years spanned three censuses (we have a census every five years in New Zealand, earthquakes permitting). So three times in those years I faced the ‘occupation’ box, which read:
Job, profession, trade or type of work in which you now work full-time or part-time for financial reward, or as an unpaid relative assisting. State fully, e.g. sheep farmer, auto-electrician, builder’s labourer, dental nurse, wages clerk. If unemployed, state previous occupation. If not applicable, write NIL.
I was certainly not unemployed. And while I worked more than full-time, I didn’t do so for financial reward. And I strenuously objected to answering a question headed ‘Occupation’ with ‘NIL’. Was I an unpaid relative assisting in a job, profession, trade, or type of work? That didn’t seem to quite fit, either. The Census Department suggested ‘housewife’ – but that wasn’t accurate; I wasn’t allowing my husband to take full responsibility for the family income so that I could care for the house. So for three censuses, I responded ‘Kept woman’.
Then, for a number of years, I balanced offering professional writing services with a whole range of activities that centred around family – from taxi-driver and dress maker to homework advisor and ethics assessor. Which was ‘my occupation’? Why, all of them. I wasn’t defined by any single activity, but by my choices to be involved in the full range of activities.
(Now, I always put ‘writer’. That’s a small part of what I do in my primary paid job – and an even smaller part of my total social and economic activity. But it gives the poor folk at NZ Statistics something to put in their graphs.)
I’m irritated by the ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ questions that well-meaning people ask children. The best answer I’ve heard pointed up the stupidity of the question – my four year old son, thrilled to be given a choice, responded: “a horse”.
A variant is the question about what parents want their child to be: I want mine to be responsible adults, valued in their communities, and loved in their families. What they do for a living, provided it is legal and moral, is a matter entirely for them.
And, come to that, whatever they have chosen, that decision is unlikely to be final. Nowadays, people move from profession to profession five or more times during their working lives. I initially trained as a kindergarten teacher. I spent a year or so in a typing pool. I was once a kitchenhand (for one morning – I was fired for being too slow) and I spent a brief period one summer as a strawberry picker. Changing occupations didn’t change who I was.
There have been many moves over the years to value women’s unpaid work. This is an idea with the best of intentions, but I believe it is fundamentally misguided. Let’s value all unpaid work, whoever does it – and let’s value it not by assigning it a putative monetary amount, but by praising and appreciating the people who carry it out. There seems to me something deeply suspect about assigning a monetary value to mothering, household management, or community volunteering. It is saying (in effect) “the work you do to raise your children to be good citizens is almost as good as a real job.” Saying that such work is essential to the economy is true, but misses the point that the motivation is not economic – in fact, for many (if not most) of us, the whole point of paid work is to make it possible for us to spend the unpaid part of our lives on what we really want/need to do.
Perhaps we need a Western version of the Hindu Ashrams.