Unpaid Work that Nurtures the World

When I put my career on hold to stay home with the kids, I didn’t know I was giving up my value in the world.

By Dulce Zamora

My husband’s life insurance policy was three times greater than mine. I was not happy about that.

 “Why?” he asked. “If I die, that means you get the money that I would have made. You could stay home with the kids and continue not working.”

“If I die,” I said, “You’d need to outsource all of the work that I do at home.”

 “I’d just move closer to one of our moms,” he said. “They could help take care of the kids.”

“Our parents are older now,” I countered “You can’t expect them to provide all of the child care.”

“Then I’d put the girls in afterschool activities,” he said. “If they’re sick, I would take time off from work, just like everyone else.”

“There’s no doubt that you are a great father,” I said. “But I do a lot and it would be hard for you to work and do my job, too. I’m also the kids’ teacher, chauffeur, nurse, therapist, event planner, medical and dental coordinator, occupational therapist, allergist, nutritionist, and so on.”

“The fact is, you do not have any income,” he said. “There is no money for me to replace. It has nothing to do with your value. It’s just math. You’re not the one making the money, so you don’t understand.”

Fighting words. Deep breath.

My husband’s sentiments are not uncommon. For the most part, family care is unpaid labor. Most countries (not the U.S.) provide some type of paid parental leave within the first few weeks of a child’s birth, but aside from that, no one compensates people who nurture their young, sick, and elderly.

According to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, 29% of American mothers stay at home. This figure reverses a decades-long trend of moms entering the workforce. These days, women stay at home not only because they want to nurture their families, but because they can’t afford child care, can’t get a job, or attend school. 

Around the world, the United Nations reports that women and girls take on at least 76% of all the home and child care. A U.N. Women report states: “Women’s unpaid work subsidizes the cost of care that sustains families, supports economies, and often fills in for the lack of services.”

Yet, being a stay-at-home mother is often not considered “real work” and carries less prestige than a job outside the house. One time, two girlfriends with full-time paid positions complained that another friend – a stay-at-home – couldn’t come out to Happy Hour simply because she was tired. 

“I don’t understand how she could be tired,” said girlfriend A. “She had the whole day to do the things that I do after work. She probably even had time for a nap.”

“Yeah,” said girlfriend B. “When I come home from work, I still cook, clean, and take care of the kids. If I could, I’d stay at home too. It’d be so much easier.”

I reminded these girlfriends that I, too, was an at-home parent and that the occupational demands were full on. Their response was that my situation was different, because I was also a writer. 

Apparently, being just a stay-at-home mother is not enough. This, despite the fact that stay-at-homes spend 7 hours more on family care, and 9 hours more on housework than working moms, per Pew Research Center data. This is not a judgement on which kind of mother is better. It is a measurement of unpaid labor. 

Working mothers also have their share of unsalaried tasks. Many women manage domestic affairs after a full day of employment. The consulting firm, McKinsey, analyzed what all women would make if they traded their unpaid stints for paid ones, and found that their economic contribution would add $28 trillion, or 26%, to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Around the globe, women’s unpaid labor is an essential part of society. The U.N.’s Shahra Razavi says, “In many ways, this kind of work can be seen as the solid foundation on which official industries, services, economies and schools, and universities sit. Without this kind of work, it would be very difficult to even think about a society in which we could function.”

Being the backbone of society does come with at a price. When women work at home, they are less likely to have a decent wage, have a pension, advance in the job market, or have other benefits associated with salaried professions. For females, this could mean being stuck in a cycle of poverty, bad jobs, missed opportunities, or dependence on men, parents, or the state. 

For stay-at-home mothers like me, being home has meant sacrificing money, career advancement, a pension, and sanity. It has meant taking a lot of deep breaths while I tolerate comments like “She’s a housewife who has too much time on her hands, and that’s why she’s involved in issue X, Y, or Z.” Or, “She’s so spoiled not having to juggle so many jobs.” 

Fighting words and critical comments can be tough to swallow.  However, I also realize that I, unlike many women, have a choice in how I spend my time. I believe in what I do as a stay-at-home parent. When I am with my two daughters, I try to use evidence-based strategies to mold them into caring, responsible global citizens. To do my job, I have read books and articles, attended workshops, regularly conferred with other colleagues, and constantly evaluated myself — just like any other professional.   I regularly interact with teaching staff and students, and run art and writing workshops for kids, making me a trusted adult.

It’s true that working moms and dads can do a version all these things, even with a full-time paid gig. However, I don’t operate to compete with other parents. I do what I do for my family, and they do what they do for theirs. If that makes someone critical or defensive, then it’s probably worth asking: Why do stay-at-homes bother you? Is it really our work that irritates, or do you also wish to be recognized for your work? In that case, join the club! We are all in this together. In fact, we all need each other. We need men and women in the workforce. We need women and men at home. We need more child care and social services to help families. Children need different role models to see the realm of possibilities. 

As for my husband, he has agreed to equalize our life insurance coverage by decreasing his to raise mine. I think he chose to compromise, because he got tired of our many arguments and wanted to work with me. One day, I hope he will not only want to make peace, but truly understand the nature of my work at home. For too long, I stayed silent while I did my job, because, frankly, it was instinctive and expected of me. I didn’t question the unpaid, un-prestigious nature of it, because I was in a position of privilege not to think about it. That was a mistake, because my silence not only undermined the value of my time and energy, but it also maintained an inequitable system that impairs women around the world.

From this day forward, I will not be a reticent stay-at-home mother. I will be a voice for my fellow sisters and I hope you can join me too.

© 2019 Windswept Wildflower

Note: During my research, I encountered the book Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates. After writing this post, I listened to it via audiobook while doing household chores. It was an eye-opening, yet familiar look into women’s roles and issues around the world. Gates voiced so much of thoughts I’d had since my childhood in both the Philippines and the United States. I had always felt that women’s work was the backbone of society, and that it was woefully under appreciated.

Gates also shared the plight of females around the world, and, through real stories, demonstrated how unpaid work hurts everyone in society. She also shared that women who were given more options and resources were able to uplift everyone (other women, men, and children) in their communities. This book made me realize that my private pain (as first world as it is) is shared by women all over the world, and that staying silent does not help anybody. When women’s work is treated as equitable as men’s, everyone benefits. Please read this book. It could change all of our lives, for the better.

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