Monday, April 23, 2012

Talking About Work

Before last week’s Rosen/Romney exchange about work, my son and I had been talking a lot about work. When we go out and about in the city, much like a Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers episode, we talk about the various people we see working, from the garbage man, to the masons building a stone wall, the construction workers fixing the sidewalk with the cement mixer, the mail person, or the sushi chef at our favorite bodega. We talk about what various relatives do for work, how Abuela teaches teachers how to teach children, while his aunt designs couture wedding dresses and his uncle takes pictures. Most mornings after his dad leaves for work, he loads up an old MacBook Pro box (that he calls his briefcase though neither my husband nor I have ever carried such a thing) with his toys and announcing that he’s going to work.

When our nanny comes a few afternoons a week, I tell him that I too am going to get some work done, but I think my work of writing confuses him a little, because the lines that define it are a little more blurry. For example, I still keep his baby sister with me, while I do it. I also tend to sneak in writing a line here or there when I am with him, or let him sit on my lap while I write, which works as long as he sits still.

Most days, however, when my husband walks out the door or when my husband is on his computer in the morning, my son is clear that my husband is working while I am with him. He’s even said, “Daddy’s working. We’re not.”

I have pointed out that play is children’s work. I started to say too, that to be clear, I was working while spending time with him, that the care taking, activity organizing, snack packing, art & dance class researching, preventing one child from harming the baby as well as any form of tantrum and schlepping both kids to and from the city via subway was indeed work.

But given that often one connotation of work is that it’s arduous, strenuous, and unsatisfying struggle, I didn’t want him to think that I found spending time with him an arduous, strenuous, and unsatisfying struggle. Until I watched him spend his morning packing his MacBook Pro box with toys and announce to me that he was going to work and he’d see me later, did I realize that he didn’t connotate work with being arduous, unsatisfying or strenuous at all. He thinks work is fun; after working with his dad and uncle in the back yard, hauling bucket after bucket of sand from the front of the house to the backyard sandpit, he thinks its something you do with people you enjoy spending time with. When he types on a book pretending its his computer, he also thinks he’s working. He finds it satisfying, and I realized that I too found it satisfying, and that many days my work as a writer is similar to my work as a mother; some days are fun and great, and some days suck.

After the Rosen/Romney exchange, I found myself thinking a lot about work as I watched age-old arguments resurface as if they were new ideas, whether women (parents really – this includes fathers) should take time off and stay home with their children or they should stay working and can we consider the work of parenting in the home the same as working outside the home (and isn't it odd that we call mothers who work outside the home "working mothers" but don't call fathers who work outside the home "working fathers"?).  No, the work of raising children isn’t paid. When a parent chooses to stay home to raise a child, they give up not just their career (for a bit – most SAHMs and SAHDs aren’t staying home forever), but their Social Security credits and retirement earnings. Many defend this, as Leslie Bennett writes for the Daily Beast, “All mothers know that motherhood involves a lot of hard work, but let’s stop pretending that that’s the same as working for a living. It isn’t. When you’re a stay-at-home mom, somebody else is bringing home the paycheck.” This is true, but that doesn’t make it right. One of the sticky points is that being a mom, and especially one who stays home is unpaid labor. And as Bennetts writes in The Feminine Mistake, many SAHM moms have a rude awakening about how much they did give up when they chose to stop working, that re-entering the work force is rough, or god forbid, if she finds herself getting divorced, or facing any other kind of economic hardship being an economic dependent will only work against her. The laws are not in favor of anyone who contributed the unpaid labor of the home.  This is also true, but again, that doesn’t make it right.

We often assume how things work is the only way things can work, so clearly, those who stay home with children shouldn’t be paid because it doesn’t currently work that way. But what if we imagined something different? In The Price of Motherhood, Ann Crittenden writes, “women may be approaching equality, but mothers are still far behind. Changing the status of mothers, by gaining real recognition for their work, is the great unfinished business of the women’s movement.”

Indeed, as we now have Mitt Romney’s proposal that women receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) should go back to work after their child is two, so that they may know the “dignity” of work. Somehow he doesn’t have to explain how the person providing daycare is also working and knowing the dignity of that work, while doing that same “work” yourself doesn’t provide the same dignity. He also doesn’t explain the rather class based assumption, that poorer mothers especially need such dignity (they must somehow lack it being on TANF? being poor? Maybe their lack of dignity and pride in themselves is what landed them on assistance in the first place?). While middle and upper class women either don’t need that dignity or they already have it, because of their class – I don’t know, and it’s odd he was having his wife answer for such things, but she was curiously silent on this one. Nonetheless, he’s rather frank about his view, that choosing to stay home with your children for the lower classes shouldn’t be a choice, and it’s work outside the home that gives us dignity.

I admire the work of other countries here, countries like Norway where a mother can take a year off work and have her job held open by law, and the government sends her a check of 80% of what she earned at her job. This check is like a paycheck, as income and social security taxes were withheld and she earned social security credits for her time home with her children. (And isn’t this novel – to give women a year off, coincidentally the same amount of time that so many organizations recommend a mother breast feed her baby? Could we possibly see an increase in breast feeding rates if maternity leaves actually lined up with the medical recommendations for new mothers?) France too offers families subsidies for the raising of children, including free health care, housing subsidies and high quality free preschools.

I know the standard response is coming. Americans supposedly aren’t interested in paying for the kinds of socialized services that other countries provide. If Americans want to take time out of the workforce to take care of an aging family member, a new baby, young family, or a special needs child, they do so at a cost financially and personally, with others judging their work as undignified and not nearly as valid as the work they did in the workforce, simply because it’s personal. Yet the personal is social. What we value personally should be reflected in what we value socially and what we value with our tax dollars. American politicians  - like Norway politicians – love to talk about their strongly held family values; Norway just supports their values with money, because they feel that the raising of a child is real work and it’s work that provides value for all of society. As a friend told me over the weekend, what goes on her resume for her time spent with her children? Grooming the next leader.

Parenting isn’t paid, but not because it’s not dignified or not valid or doesn’t deserve space on our resumes. It’s not paid because we haven’t found a way to pay for it and we haven’t valued the work of it enough to deem it worthy of our financial attention. 

Granted, many argue that it shouldn’t be paid or receive compensation, even Social Security credits, because it’s our children. The emotional reward should be enough, plus it can be really fun. Parenting is fun and rewarding, but it’s also stressful, and sometimes more so than the work outside the home. And I say this after talking to people have taken time off from being public school teachers, politicians, neuroscientists, doctors, professors and academics, lawyers, advertising executives, and so on – people who found their work fun, rewarding and stressful. There are many days my husband comes home from his work and tells me about his hard and stressful day, but he always ends it with, “it was hard, but not as hard as what you did today.” I appreciate that he’s aware of this, and I take it as an acknowledgement (the same way I take my 3 year-old saying, “Thanks for cooking dinner, Mom.”). In the current culture of work and family values, where parents are penalized for taking time off from working outside the home, it’s all I’m going to get. 


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