The best explanation ever for what we ‘do all day’
“You don’t even work!” he yelled.
I hadn’t heard those four little words for a while. When I heard them recently they dug deep and remained there, a question mark hooked into my brain matter. Even though I knew he didn’t mean it the question mark didn’t leave me alone.
Fair enough that he thinks I don’t work, I thought, he’s never been in my position, he doesn’t get it.
But what about me? Why do *I* sometimes think it too?
I knew that what I did in the home was a core part of the social structure that enabled my husband to even work at all. I knew that the unpaid work I did in the house was real work. I knew it in my head, but I realised with my nose scrunched up, I didn’t truly believe it.
How did I end up with this perception that only paid work had any value? I’ve never believed that money is the only measure of value. Yet I was carrying around a conflicting myth that my life so far had no value.
And I knew it was because I’d spent most of my adult life as a stay at home mother.
When filling out forms I usually stated that I didn’t work, for simplicity’s sake. In conversation I usually ended up saying I hadn’t really done anything with my life yet. And feeling apologetic for it.
Friends would exclaim “but you’ve had four children!” and take pains to cajole me into seeing the value of the work that I’d undertaken raising them. It’s not that I didn’t think raising four kids and running a household was worth doing, I’d grown pretty attached to the whole package. It’s that I didn’t feel like that work actually counted — to society.
I had absorbed the idea that there was more dignity and worth in scrubbing someone else’s toilets for money, than in scrubbing your own toilets.
Like many women who “didn’t work” I struggled with both the burden and the invisibility of unpaid work in the home.
There must be a way to quantify the unpaid work of the home, I thought. I wanted to stop depending on others to see what I do as valuable. I wanted to convince myself of the value of the unpaid work I’ve done for the last 16 years.
What exactly do you mean by unpaid work anyway?
The simplest definition of unpaid work is “activity which involves all the essential tasks done in and in relation to the home”. Meals, laundry, hygiene, tending to the space and caring for the dependents*.
(*I use the word dependent rather than children because they’re not necessarily always children. No judgement, just fact.)
To understand the unpaid worker’s perspective, we have to accept that there are things you only notice when you are the one doing it. Our work isn’t invisible because people are arseholes or set out to take advantage of others. It’s how it is with any kind of work — it’s impossible to know what it is like from within unless you’ve had experience with it. All the more when it is not measured, quantified or paid for.
It is safe to say that this is a fair, accurate and not exaggerated list:
- Unpaid work is work that gets noticed when it is neglected.
- Unpaid work maintains normalcy, restores order and supports forward movement, growth and harmony.
- Unpaid work wreaks havoc on the internal, external and professional well-being of the person who takes on the role.
- Unpaid work is undervalued.
- Unpaid work is assumed to be “something that mothers do”.
- Unpaid work is losing it’s identity as women’s work in theory but in practice it defaults to women.
- Unpaid work is work you are expected to do while sick, injured, on your day off from your ‘real’ job, on weekends and, get this, on vacation.
I am a person who has observed this role for a decade and a half. I have been in this role for as long as I have been an adult and I have burnt myself out for it many candles over. I don’t have grand plans to tear down The Patriarchy. All I want is to write before the sea of unpaid work drowns out my fire, for good.
I believe that unpaid work in the home is right on the cusp of shifting from being women’s work to simply being work.
We just need a little push to get there, as a society.
I don’t think women can afford not to figure out a way out of the lingering cultural hostage situation that is the assumed gender of unpaid work.
I don’t think the world can afford it either.
What do the statistics tell us about this type of work?
What the statistics tell us is that we haven’t measured household work for the last 11 years. The last time-use survey happened in 2006 so we have no idea what’s been going on in the home for over a decade. All our figures are from before Instagram scrolling even existed as a pastime. So I’m going to assume then that my guess about the situation today in 2017 is as good as anyone’s.
They tell us that the most accurate form of measuring unpaid work is this diary-based time-use survey. This is ‘internationally accepted best practice’ which Australia used to be good at doing it but doesn’t really feel like doing at the moment.
Our top statisticians are ok with relying on each individual’s assessment of what they do with their time as being a satisfactory indicator of what they are actually doing. So I assume I can also trust my time use diary which has been a daily musing on ‘how the hell do I get everything done?’ is data enough for the purposes of this post.
They tell us that the way unpaid work is valued is by using an ‘individual function replacement cost’ method to estimate the value. This method assigns value to the time spent on unpaid work according to what it would cost to pay someone else to do the job. For example, time spent on gardening is valued at the rate of pay for a commercial gardener. Seems fair enough.
They tell us that unpaid work is still the domain of women, even the ones who have entered the workforce. Huh. More women than men performed household work in 1997 – 96% compared with 85%. They also spend more time on these activities than men — 287 minutes per day compared with 170 minutes per day. So, household work consumed almost one third of women’s waking hours and one fifth of men’s.
Who is doing the housework? Here are the figures:
Even women who work are still doing more unpaid work than men. This tells us that this isn’t some sort of logistical challenge and it isn’t staying the way it is because “men work”. It is much more likely that we need to consciously reassign the work at home. More on that in a minute.
They tell us that unpaid work is actually more than one activity according to the ABS. Alongside your primary activity there is “something else you were doing at the same time”. This is called your secondary activity. Secondary activities basically consist of all the stuff you’re trying to get done while the kids interrupt you.
When taking secondary activities into account, the time a parent spends on childcare increases but the overall trends do not change.
For example, in couple families in which both parents were employed, fathers spend an average of 28 hours a week on child care (compared with 8 hours as a primary activity), while mothers spent over 57 hours a week (compared with 19 hours as a primary activity). [2006 time-use survey]
This doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Just that the things you try to do while looking after kids, take longer than they otherwise would. Also, that mothers still spend double the time that fathers do, being interrupted by their kids while trying to get some other unpaid work accomplished slower than they otherwise would.
A little bit of a thought exercise
Looking at data and statistics across millions of people can be pretty dry and dull. When I was looking into this I wanted to see if there was a way of putting a dollar figure to the unpaid work done in the home.
So I thought about the types of things I and many others do when they are responsible for the invisible work of the home. I’d spent many years trying to figure out how to do it all while looking after four children. Running a household. Making regular meals from scratch wherever possible. Cleaning, oh so much cleaning. Tidying. Sorting through the assorted paraphernalia of the lives of six different people. I had so many lists of things to do.
I paired groups of items with the most workable role in the workforce today. This is so that we can get an idea of what that role is worth in the terms that society understands: in dollar figures.
While thinking through this list we’re keeping in mind that the average unpaid worker can stay in pyjamas all day. But they also have no formal sick or holiday leave and can’t usually completely quit these roles without finding a suitable replacement. And they don’t get paid.
Obviously it is not exactly the same thing, which is why this is just a thought exercise. But we can get a feel for the task load of the average unpaid worker, while also getting a rough idea of it’s value in the paid workforce.
Do you often find yourself:
- preparing materials and equipment for children’s education and recreational activities?
- managing children’s behaviour and guiding children’s social development?
- preparing and conducting activities for children?
- entertaining children by reading and playing games?
- supervising children in recreational activities?
- supervising the daily routine of children?
- Tending to or supervising the hygiene of children?
- planning and structuring both indoor and outdoor learning environments using a variety of materials and equipment to facilitate children’s development?
- providing a variety of experiences and activities to develop motor skills, cooperative social skills, confidence and understanding?
- promoting language development through story telling, role play, songs, rhymes and informal discussions held individually and within groups?
- observing children to check progress and to detect signs of ill health, emotional disturbance and other disabilities?
- observing nutritional health, welfare and safety needs of children and identifying factors which may impede their progress?
- discussing children’s progress with teachers and other caregivers?
- participating in community and family activities as appropriate?
Then you’re performing the work of a full time, live in nanny/childcare worker who earns an average weekly wage of $800 before tax.
Do you ever find yourself:
- vacuuming carpets, curtains and upholstered furniture?
- sweeping, mopping, waxing or polishing tiled, vinyl, timber or concrete floors?
- tidying rooms, emptying wastepaper bins, removing refuse and recyclable material?
- cleaning, disinfecting and deodorising kitchens, bathrooms and toilets?
- dusting, cleaning and polishing furniture and other homewares?
- cleaning windows and other glass surfaces?
- cleaning the interior of buildings and the immediate outside areas?
- dusting and polishing furniture, fixtures and fittings?
- picking up rubbish, emptying bins, and taking contents to waste areas for removal?
- replenishing items such as groceries, clothing, linen, stationary etc?
- stripping and making beds, and changing bed linen?
- picking up, sorting, washing, drying, ironing and mending linen and clothes?
Then you’re performing the work of a full time domestic cleaner/housekeeper who earns an average weekly wage of $909 before tax.
Do you ever find yourself:
- cleaning kitchens and food preparation areas?
- cleaning cooking and general utensils?
- transferring groceries to fridge, freezer, pantry and storage?
- assembling and preparing ingredients for cooking, and preparing salads, savouries and sandwiches?
- packing food and beverage for consumption outside of the house?
- cooking, toasting and heating simple food items?
- planning menus, estimating food and time costs, and ordering or procuring food supplies?
- monitoring quality of dishes at all stages of preparation and presentation?
- preparing and cooking food?
- explaining and enforcing hygiene rules?
- freezing and preserving foods?
- examining foodstuffs to ensure quality?
- regulating temperatures of ovens, grills and other cooking equipment?
- portioning food, placing it on plates, and adding gravies, sauces and garnishes?
- storing food in temperature controlled facilities?
- preparing food to meet special dietary requirements?
- planning menus and estimating food requirements and cost?
- training other kitchen staff and apprentices?
Then you’re performing the work of both a kitchen hand AND a personal cook/chef who earns a combined average weekly wage of $1775 before tax.
Do you ever find yourself:
- liaising with other family members on matters relating to the family’s operations or individual member’s lives?
- Researching, preparing correspondence and other routine documents?
- maintaining files and documents?
- attending meetings and acting as secretary as required?
- maintaining appointment diaries and making travel arrangements?
- processing incoming and outgoing mail?
- screening telephone calls and answering inquiries?
- taking and transcribing dictation of letters and other documents?
- taking care of household pets and plants, receiving visitors, answering telephones, delivering messages, and shopping for groceries?
Then you’re performing the work of a personal assistant who earns an average weekly wage of $1150 before tax.
You still with me? It’s a lot, I know.
And then there is this whole OTHER category.
There are many other hats that unpaid workers wear in the house. None of us is equal in our strengths and what we bring to our home life. Some of us also have green thumbs and some of us are guns in the kitchen. But most of us are performing at least one other role which fits into the other category. Here is a list of possible roles you are quite likely also performing, on top of all the above.
- life coach/therapist
- personal shopper/stylist
- mental health advocate
- physical health advocate
- interior designer
- taxi driver
- professional organiser
- travel agent
- research assistant
None of these are accounted for in my statistics, it is an “other” category. Optional. So bear that in mind if you are currently beating yourself up for your perceived unworthiness when you browse Pinterest. When you thought to yourself “but I DON’T polish the furniture” or when you cringed while dodging yet another request from the school to volunteer, remember one thing.
This is all the equivalent of unpaid overtime.
Inside the average unpaid worker is a hidden squad, like an invisible Spice Girls, worth about a quarter of a million dollars per year
When we’re talking about unpaid work, we’re talking about the work of one person (usually a woman) that is equal to five+ roles which when combined and quantified in the world outside the home, average close to a quarter of a million dollars per year in savings.
I know this is a big claim to make. But this is what it feels like to be a real life unpaid worker, this is their hidden value to their family and I got to this figure without taking much of a different angle to the ABS method.
These are conservative figures on purpose. I’ve used average weekly earnings and for simplicity’s sake combined the kitchen hand and cook/chef into one role. This isn’t a comprehensive statistical model of the life of the average unpaid worker. But it’s the most relatable one I could think of which is also accurate enough to make a point.
The point is to make sense of our reality. In a way that we can explain in the heat of the moment to a skeptical audience and in dollar figures. I want to provoke the things that society needs to start saying. Things that light a fire inside of the average unpaid worker for her own under-appreciated, decimated personal life trajectory. Before it’s too late.
And not only that. That we can believe in. We can’t quite articulate it when talking about ourselves but we know we’re fulfilling all these roles and then some. Apply this idea to someone you do not hate, because otherwise you’ll be judging her output with a fine-tooth comb. I bet you would believe that she is fulfilling at least these roles and then some.
I know at least five other actual real women right now who are performing these roles to a standard that is functionally useful.
I know another handful who are performing these roles to a standard that is off the charts wizard activity but they might cry themselves to sleep at night, so I’m not sure they’re sustainable models.
The mere mortals among us might not be doing it to the level of a professional but its five+ roles and all for free! How productive would you be if I piled on four extra roles for you to perform without pay?
Remember that video prank where they spoke to people for the job role that was actually the description of a mother? Everyone got the point of the joke — this workload is unconscionable anywhere but in the home.
We’re doing pretty damn well switching between five+ roles and keeping people alive at the same time. This is the reason we’re all so tired, cranky and irritable. We definitely do work.
And we’re most definitely NOT making a quarter of a million dollars per year from it. It is not realistic for one person, full stop.
Through cultural osmosis, from watching TV, from how our parents talk or their parents talk, we’ve absorbed the idea that unpaid work in the home is our role. We’ve assumed that unpaid work is a part of who we are and we’re distracted from who we really are not only by the work itself, but by the guilt that we’re not doing enough of it and we’re not doing it well enough.
An aside, because it is sure to come up: No. The gift of being a mother is not compensation enough.
Unless you are five different people living in seperate apartments who get together for cocktails on their days off to discuss their autonomous choices — it’s not the same thing.
If I’m describing your life here too, remember, your five people are all YOU.
Yes. This is why you’re feeling a little crazy.
The conclusion I’ve come to is that in real monetary terms we’re actually worth a packet.
But this situation is unsustainable. It is unrealistic and unhealthy on a personal, societal and spiritual level.
How do you do it?!
Everyone asks women who juggle the house, the kids and any kind of other activity on top of that, ‘how do you do it?!’
We’ve all either heard this question or had this question. It’s meant as a compliment. Always with a raised eyebrow, any time you look like you’re not falling apart at the seams. It is because we’re all still trying to figure out how to do it.
I’m here to tell you, there’s no point in trying to do something so plainly impossible. Nobody can do it. We need a different mission.
It took me a while to even write this post in part because of my unpaid work duties and the constant struggle to do anything else. But when I got past the self-doubt embedded in my gender, like a virus that hides in the operating system?
Hunkering down to look at the maths made me realise my gut instinct has been right all along. This gig is a sham.
I know this is a heteronormative point to make but there is a reason there is a famous article entitled “I want a wife”. It’s symbolism holds truth.
We didn’t stop doing so much around the house when we started working for pay because it was assumed we can handle it. And it was assumed because we continued to put all our energy into figuring out how to handle it.
Our predecessors put in a massive effort getting societal attitudes to the point where women can work, vote and enter the public domain. They figured out what we want (equality) and why we want it (duh), but nobody told us how to actually do it. If they did I missed it during the last 15 years of unpaid work.
There is a very simple reason for this. They were making big sweeping societal changes that addressed the what and the why. What worked then isn’t what is going to work now. We’ve got to make personal changes because the how is always personal. What works for one person and their family isn’t what works for another.
The fact is, the mission of our generation is figuring out the how.
We do have a voice. We do have the ability and the rights to make different choices about how we live. We have to both release ourselves from doing too much, while requiring those around us to begin doing more. But to do that we have to ask different questions.
It’s not about figuring out how to do it all anymore. It is about getting other people to do more.
How are we going to convince anyone who isn’t a woman to do more of the unpaid work?
This is what I know so far about challenging an unconscious assumption that underpins much of society:
Making adjustments to social norms is always going to be uncomfortable for people who are fine with things the way they are, because they are the ones who will be inconvenienced by the changes.
But it is a broken system when it is built on the ruins of one person’s hopes, dreams and personal resources. We can’t just not change it because it inconveniences someone but it can be intimidating to let someone know you intend to change their status quo. If we can get clear on what matters to us, then we can access the inner fire to deal with the push back from those around us.
The obvious thing is that women need to do less of the work in the house and expect others to do more of the work. We do need men and children to get on board at home. There isn’t a quick solution to getting them to do things that up until this point they never had to concern themselves with.
I’ve been watching this play out throughout the rise of social media. It is obvious that nothing changes through whinging about men or children and going on strike. Nor does it change by treating those with time to themselves with suspicion and elevating ourselves for taking on more than we can handle. Or vice versa. Both ends of that spectrum only create further division between people while delaying the re-distribution of labour.
The best way to convince someone to engage with the reality on the ground is to have an attitude that matches it. We’re not doing anyone any favours in the long run by letting the unpaid work they create remain invisible to them. There are few spheres of life where people are not expected to be a team player or at the very least, pick up after themselves. Even tiny children in creche know how to pack up a room when they hear the pack up music playing.
There is no reason for the burden of unpaid work to be contained in the head of one person. There’s literally no reason that person has to be female (obvious exceptions are pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding so don’t get on my case about that, it’s a whole other topic). The reality is that unpaid work in the home is a normal part of life, for everyone. Everyone who creates the work, should be doing the work.
It is a formidable task to focus only on what we are responsible for but we’re only responsible for our attitude to this work and for asking for what we want. We’re not responsible for their reactions. We’re not responsible for their emotions about it. And we’re not responsible for the inconveniences that this reality check brings. Even though we often love these people we live with.
In a world that proliferates with quick fixes, divisive language and short term gratification, long term societal change on this mundane level hardly rates a mention. But what we’re talking about, at the root of this, is a more functional home as the norm. If that isn’t something to strive for, I don’t know what is.
How do we adopt an attitude that promotes work in the home as ‘a normal part of life’?
By putting all our energy into transforming our own relationship to unpaid work in the home so that our ambitions can take a front seat.
Every family will have a different distribution of things that people do in the home. If you’re happy in a traditional gender role or you’re in a phase of life where it makes the most sense, I’m not speaking up as an assault on your way of life. If you’re stuck in a situation where there is no way to do the things I’m advocating, I’m not speaking up to make your lot in life harder. I’ve been there and I get it.
This attitude change is not about prescribing a particular way of dividing work in the home. It is about how we rationally and successfully adjust things when there is one person who feels that they do an unfair proportion of the work at home. It is about encouraging people to override traditional roles if they want to, because we can.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses work satisfaction. He says that for work to be meaningful it has to have autonomy, complexity and a clear link between effort and reward. I realised that finding personal ways of unhooking gender from unpaid work in my home makes the role of unpaid worker into a meaningful one for me.
Who would you be if you weren’t caught up in the Bermuda triangle of dishes, laundry and meal prep? I know I’d be much further along in my book. I’d also be more myself, happier and less stressed. To have autonomy in this work we have to realise we do actually have a choice to do this work to an extent and in a way that suits us and our current energy levels for it.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to become more organised before I was ready to drop my standards. Today I’m in a situation where I have streamlined my chores enough that I have the entire school day free to write. I did this by caring less about things that weren’t essential, becoming more efficient and delegating tasks to everyone else in the house.
This required radically dropping my expectations for myself in the home and getting honest with myself about what I really wanted to do with my one wild life. As I put it to a writer friend, “would you rather be able to say that you had a clean kitchen all year or that you finished your book this year?” Or, as Tiffany Dufu says it in her book Dropping the Ball, “I expect far less of myself and far more of my husband than the average woman.”
The men I’ve observed are skilful at identifying what work around the house they are willing to call their own. It is about identity and we can learn from them but first we have to untangle who we are from what we do in the house.
Even if we’ve become very good at it and society tells us it’s what we should be doing — our unpaid work is not our identity.
This then gives us the necessary distance to decide like men do, what we want to do in the house and to negotiate it. Managing teamwork is an inherently more complex task than letting life be a groundhog day of chores over and over. But it isn’t possible to do this until we know in our guts that the state of the house is not a reflection of our worth.
The state of our homes is actually a reflection of our progress in establishing a new social order on a microcosmic level. No one said the revolution had to be tidy.
We’ve all resorted to ‘I’ll just bloody do it myself’ and I don’t blame us, because it can seem like an impossible change to make. But if we want things to change we have to give up that response. We have to steady ourselves for standing our ground otherwise our families will always call our bluff.
They will never have a reason to make an effort if they know you’re going to swoop in if they do it poorly enough. Instead we have to train ourselves to stand seeing things undone about the house. We have to accept the challenge of reminding people of their tasks. We have to get skilled at deflecting the tasks we’ve decided are no longer ours.
The smartest thing I did in my resistance was to keep the jobs I really cared about seeing done well, for myself. This made me much more patient with the societal change I was bringing about in my house. It didn’t bother me that much if the quality of the work I did hand over to them was affected while they got used to doing it.
Earlier this year, I completely lost my cooking mojo after doing it single-handedly for 16 years. So I stopped. I bought a heap of frozen food and easy food to make and I stopped. I knew my husband would cook if he got hungry. I didn’t mind that he over-seasoned the food at first because I cared more about not having to do it. Gradually, he learned and improved.
It takes time and patience but the rewards from this kind of effort in the home is so much more satisfying than the momentary pride of having all the rooms in the house clean at the same time for exactly 30 seconds before it gets messed up and you have to start all over again.
When our kids get better at doing things they didn’t do before, the first time they do it without complaining, or being reminded, is a huge step toward building the kind of world we want to live in.
When your partner adjusts and begins to see it as no big deal, or when someone else in the house learns to cook because you’ve stepped back it’s a satisfying feeling of support and camaraderie.
When you fall ill and for the first time everything continues on pretty much as normal without you needing to bark instructions from bed, it is sweet relief.
When you call out that it’s time for a family cleaning blitz, switch off the screens and turn on the music, and everyone seems almost convivial about something that once elicited loud groans — it really is worth the effort to train them to see housework as a normal part of life — for everyone.
Stepping back, biting my tongue and making myself obsolete in the house, one little task at a time, to the point where I could actually leave for a few days without stressing out about what will happen at home, is a worthy trade-off in my mind.
The greatest reward, to me, is in knowing that one day all my children will be carrying forward this attitude. That as a direct result of my training, less women in the future will be expected to do, or expect of themselves, ridiculous levels of unpaid work in the home.
A movement to unhook gender from household work
“A movement happens when people are inspired by somebody, but they do it themselves. You don’t wait for someone else. You do it yourself. I think we just need each other’s company and support. I don’t think we need one person. We need a cell. There’s always a certain number of people who are thinking the same thing you are, so it kind of coalesces. And they can’t fire me! So this is a good thing. Movements need a certain number of people who can’t be fired.”
~ Gloria Steinem for Esquire Magazine
There is a lot that needs to change in the world. But if there is one thing whose time has come, it is a movement to unhook gender from household work. I started moving in this direction in my own home because I had a burning desire to write. But it was also because I knew if I didn’t shift some of this stuff off my plate, it would extinguish my fire. Permanently, I feared.
In theory, most people agree with equality. But in our homes, we know it still remains women’s work for the majority. People will argue with this and this is great because it leaves them with two options. They can either do more household work and make sure that wily feminists can’t claim that it is still women’s work. Or they can argue that it actually should remain women’s work and prove why this post is in no way redundant in 2017.
Our job now is to overcome this burden on the micro level and we’re the only ones who can. We are the circuit breakers. If there is a place where we have the power to interrupt this cycle of women’s work, it is in our homes. This isn’t something we can take to the streets and protest. This is a more refined protest. It is a nuanced mission requiring patience and steely determination.
We hold the power to change this world where assumed servitude puts out the fire of women while pitting loved ones against each other over bin night.
We’re the ones who can build a different world where families are team members working to shape functional members of society who go on to make more functional families.
How do we do this?
That is a question I am on fire about finding answers to. This is why I wrote this manifesto. I wanted to share my thoughts with you, but also, to make sure I don’t forget.
I want household work created by the people of the house done by the people in that house.
That’s it! That’s the tweetable! No biggie.
‘You won’t know yourself!’
Oh but you will and that’s the whole point.
The revolution is not yet complete.
Women still accept this state of affairs where it matters: in their homes.
When people find out we’ve managed to barter a bit of time to do something with our lives, we still laugh amicably when they warn us that we won’t know ourselves.
We still accept this unspoken warning that to know ourselves is risky, selfish or dangerous to the status quo.
The warning is correct: it is risky, selfish and dangerous to the status quo for women to know themselves.
But if status quo is shit for us, why would we continue propping it up with our very lives?
To begin to fix this broken system, one microcosmic home at a time, what we need the most is women who are clear on the value of what they do all day and supported to burn bright with the fire of their most personal ambitions.