Last Monday, I went to see a new GP. As it was my first visit, I had to fill out an intake form. Like every form, there was a space for 'profession'; and, like every form, I left it blank. I hate to write 'housewife', and 'writer' seems too try-hard. Anyway, it doesn't earn an income.
The doctor checked my details, then asked me what I did. I explained that I was home with kids, but added that I sometimes write. 'Oh,' she said, 'you're a writer', and filled in the box, just like that. 'But I don't have time to write much,' I protested. She grinned. 'Anyone with three kids doesn't have time for much,' she said, and stood up; and I, filled with pride that according to this calm and lovely woman I Am A Writer, dropped my pants and had the most relaxed pap smear of my life.
On Tuesday, I took a daughter to a new friend's house for a play. As I was chatting with the mother, she asked me what I did. I explained that I was home mostly, but, remembering the doctor's office, added that I wrote a little. 'Does that earn a living?' she asked, one eyebrow raised. I found myself apologising that my husband earns enough for all of us, and so it didn't really matter – though in fact I did earn a little. 'Enough to pay for a few hours of childcare,' I added in a little voice, then felt so pathetic that I crept out the door.
Later I was filled with rage – first at her, then at the lovely doctor, and finally at me. Yet all three of us were operating out of the same model, society's dominant model: that a profession is the measure of someone. How each of us understood this differed, but the model was at the root of my rage, because in this model, I have no worth.
Although I initially felt affirmed by the doctor, on reflection I realise she dismissed four fifths of my life. I spend most of my time cooking, cleaning and fooling around with kids. These activities aren't always interesting or satisfying; but they are my reality, and they feed the writing no end. Without them, I'm not sure I could write at all. I can't dismiss them; and nor should she.
On the other hand, the friend's mother hinted that being a writer was suspect because it's not salaried. I regularly encounter the attitude that a good wife contributes financially to the household. If she has children, she contributes less than her partner because she spends more hours doing childcare and housework; however, her financial contribution is the fundamental indicator of her worth. I know many women who have put their kids into childcare and gone back to work not because they want to, but at the insistence of their partners that they 'contribute'; and I wonder who, exactly, does all the housework now?
I have no problem with willing women going back to work, and I understand that in many cases it's a financial necessity, but I reject the premise that a woman's contribution – or anyone's contribution – is measureable only in terms of economics. Other things, such as caring for kids, cleaning the house, offering hospitality and engaging in volunteer work make an enormous difference to a family, and to a society. They are indispensable, even if they're not economically valuable.
Would the world be a better place if I parked my kids in childcare, became a dental hygienist and added a second income to the household? Clearly not, although my kids' teeth might get a little cleaner. And yet the housework I do is so often dismissed, by others and, so much worse, by me, because it's not a profession; and the writing, because it's not an earner.
I found myself wondering when will the world – including women – value women's work: answering questions, wiping bottoms, folding clothes, peeling carrots and telling stories? No one asks whether I earn a living working from seven in the morning to eight at night, rinsing out wet undies and preparing meals and weeding the vegetable patch and swooping the vacuum cleaner over the floors. No one asks about income when I'm years short of sleep and woken at five in the morning by a kick in the kidneys from a four year old's foot. That work's a given; of course I do it, and of course it's unpaid.
And it is work. Sometimes it's so boring I could shriek; sometimes it's so frustrating and lonely and enraging and tedious that I could run screaming out the door. Other times it's fun, satisfying, enriching, enjoyable, or just a doddle. It's like any job, really: good and bad, except it's fundamentally relational, and it's grounded in love. I am lucky, too, that I can also write about it, and tell the familiar story. Whether or not the sweeping and the story-telling earn an income is really beside the point.
So I can't remain angry at the doctor or the mum for wanting to put me in a work box one way or another; they're just reflecting a societal attitude. In any case, the person I'm really angry at is, of course, me. I am the one who doesn't want to put 'housewife' on any form; I'm embarrassed to be such a fifties cliché. I am the one who feels apologetic that when I'm not caring for kids I'm not really earning money either. I've fallen into exactly the same trap as the doctor and the mother; I struggle to feel valued and, more importantly, to value myself in the work I do. Whether it's mopping the floors or stringing sentences together, picking up blocks or jotting down ideas, I still don't feel like it's Work.
Perhaps it isn't in the eyes of man, but to this woman, it undeniably is. And it's unavoidable. For all my ambivalence about what I do and how I describe it, I still have meals to cook, children to care for, and the burning urge to write. But can I stop being dismissive about it, to myself and to others? Can I claim it, name it, shout it from the rooftops? Can I turn questions about money into questions about worth? Can I write proudly on a form 'Housewife / Writer'?
The evidence suggests not yet. But someday, perhaps, someday.