“Feminist researchers have argued that women have often had, at most, “invisible leisure” – enjoyable, but productive and socially sanctioned. Yet pure leisure, making time just for oneself, is nothing short of a courageous act of radical and subversive resistance.”
- Brigid Schulte
The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines unpaid work as “fulfilling many important functions that directly affect the well-being and quality of people’s lives and covers a variety of activities such as voluntary work, domestic work, and caring for others.” In this article we dive into primarily unpaid carer work, which includes domestic care, parenting duties, etc. that allow society to function smoothly and it’s cogs to turn well-oiled and unquestioned.
I wrote this piece initially as a love letter to mothers, but after honing in on what I was truly attempting to say, it is addressed to all generations of women. Throughout my life, I’ve grown up seeing examples of women doing the work that no one else wanted to do, but never getting the acknowledgement or reward it merited. As a wide-eyed child aunties would tell their stories to me, of who they were before they got married. When they’d had dreams of becoming famous painters, of pursuing their education further, of travelling, of how much they loved writing. I remember I would always say that they could still be those things, why don’t they do them now? But they would laugh, I understand now, because time for themselves had by that point become a laughable concept.
I read an article a couple of years ago about how many of the most spectacular scholars, thinkers and creators in Western history were able to achieve their historical contributions to the world due to their unfettered allowance to use their time as they wished, often at the expense and sacrifice of the women supporting them. Most shocking of these were the stories of the wives, mothers and housekeepers who were of equal or greater genius, who had to pursue their own passions in the latest hours of the night, after everyone else had been taken care of.
This put into perspective how many generations of women had been robbed of their own time, for their entire lives. This is not to say that the tasks of child rearing, and home-making are not worthy and essential for our collective social betterment, but that the unequal and undervalued loading of unpaid labour onto women for most of western history has resulted in women being stripped of their individual time, dreams and agency. Even in my own life, free of dependents, I think about all the times I’ve sat down to do something and been called upon to serve tea, to clean up after everyone has eaten or to look after some random person’s kid. It actually happened every few minutes that I sat down to write this article. This interrupts the necessary conditions to enter “flow”, which is a state categorised by uninterrupted time, and deemed essential for a person to create anything of value.
As you become aware of the concept of uninterrupted time, you start noticing it in your own life, and of those around you. As we were finalising this piece, one of our editors said that she was always frustrated by the concept of flow, because she sees her little brother pursuing his career in music, and can recall how freely he was always able to practice his instruments, which was encouraged. She couldn’t remember ever having uninterrupted time like that, as she was always helping her mum and her grandma. Everyone is not able to own their time in the same way, which is a concept called “time poverty”. This occurs when most of a person’s time is spent working, and completing tasks and obligations, without the ability to spend time for themselves. A crucial element of time poverty is having no choice in regards to the way that your time is spent, and we are examining this in relation to expectation, duty and social norm.
Why Does It Matter That The Work Is Unpaid?
As we don’t exist in a vacuum, we cannot ignore the realities of living in a world that is run by capitalism. While doing work that is unpaid is a selfless and necessary task to build strong families, communities, etc. it is not acknowledged as such under capitalism. In the pursuit and growth of material wealth, unpaid work has been defined as such because it is not work that directly brings in monetary gain. For this reason, it is undervalued, unacknowledged and causes real harm to those members of society who undertake it.
Marilyn Waring is a former NZ politician, and current activist and academic, as well as principal founder of feminist economics, who uncovered hard realities behind our GDP. Marilyn found herself consistently shocked by the stories of women being forced to work further than their own paid jobs, and found that this actually stemmed from the reality of the GDP. “The rules were drawn up by Western-educated men in 1953”, she explains, and they established a “boundary of production.” On one side of the boundary, everything that was a market exchange was counted, regardless of how unethical it was. To put this into simpler terms, activities such as human trafficking and gambling are on one side of this boundary, because regardless of how unethical they are, they make money. On the other side is work that is deemed “of little or no value”, which includes all unpaid work. This is doing laundry, looking after children- as far as economics is concerned, when a woman is giving birth, she is being unproductive.
Marilyn’s proposed solution to this gaping and harmful gap is implementation of the “time-use survey”, to have the largest sector in most economies recognised. In Australia (and hold your breath for this one) “the monetary value of unpaid care work has been estimated to be $650.1 billion, the equivalent of 50.6% of GDP. However, unpaid care work is not included in the calculation of the GDP.” Okay yes, this is shocking, but why do we care? Because this leads to the undervaluing of certain roles, such as that of homemakers and carers, and this in turn means that unpaid work is largely unprotected. Policy surrounding care work and other forms of unpaid labour does not accurately take in the sheer amount of unpaid work that is done in Australia, because it is dismissed as “non-productive”. This makes it therefore unworthy of the consideration and protection it merits, which hurts those in society who must undertake it, which are statistically, low-income women and their families, who then continue to be crushed by the unending cycle of time poverty.
Also, just because it’s interesting, Marilyn wrote about a solution to this problem thirty years ago, then after the 2008 global financial crisis, the president of France tasked three male Nobel Prize winners with finding a solution, only for them to discover the exact thing she’d written about thirty years before.
So what do we take from all this?
Marilyn’s solution is sensible and by and far what we should be lobbying for, but large-scale change takes time. Without detracting from the absolute value that unpaid care work has in allowing our societies to progress and function smoothly, it is also not a covenant we automatically enter when we are born into the world as women. We need to understand these realities so that we can allow and urge ourselves to resist the calls from every side to fall into an endless line of duty that lasts until we die, at the cost of our own dreams and ideas and untapped potential and impact.
At a breakfast for Palestine, activist Dalya Ayoub gave her audience- primarily a room full of mothers- the permission to focus on causes bigger than their family. She spoke about how she had sat her kids down and told them that for the foreseeable future, she would not be as available to them, as she was fighting for the Palestinian cause. She called Palestine her purpose. It was her duty Islamically, she said, to actively seek justice, not just for her family, but for others. When she said this, one of our writers who was attending the breakfast suddenly felt that she would actually be able to allow herself to one day become a mother, something that she had always seen as having to give up her whole self to do. We can do other things, it is our duty to do other things. That is justice for ourselves.
“My life is my own life, and I’m working to make sure that no one can take that from me.”
Editors: Lamisa. H and Jessica. L