In my last post, I wrote about work-life balance. I've spent my whole adult life wondering about the nature of work; yet in that post I used the word without definition or clarification. Now I'd like to unpack it.
The day I wrote that post, I used the word to mean 'activity which is not directly related to managing children or the household'; that's what I always mean when I say 'work'. My husband works: he goes out of the house and does stuff which is not related to spending time with children, cleaning the house, washing clothes, or buying, preparing and serving food. Certainly the money he earns contributes mightily to the upkeep of the household, but when he is 'at work', he is not engaged in a hands-on way.
When I say that I 'work', I mean that I am studying or writing. I don't differentiate, when I speak, between all the aspects of 'studying' and 'writing', such as reading, mining bibliographies, meeting with supervisors or other students, attending seminars, collecting library books, sighing over crappy drafts, or gazing out the window wondering what the hell I'm trying to do. Nobody needs to know precisely what I do in those hours, just as nobody outside accounts needs to know when my husband meets with a client, drafts a document, ducks out for sushi, or gazes out the window wondering what the hell he's trying to do, too. Like him, I just say 'work'. It's easier that way.
So for me, 'work' is industrious activity outside the orbit of the household. Because I study, it's not financially remunerative; maybe one day it will be.
Why do these words matter? Quite simply, because language is powerful. I have found that if I say 'it's my study time', someone will always suggest meeting for coffee or doing an errand; and when my study times are measured in three hour blocks, this is disastrous. On the other hand, when I say 'it's my work day', nobody asks anything of me. We take 'work' much more seriously than 'study', even if the person using the word 'work' really, secretly, means 'study'.
It's magic! And it's crazy. Meanwhile, an old friend of mine recently worked out how much time she has spent breastfeeding her very young baby; it was many more hours than full time employment, and didn't take into account the time she has spent changing nappies, washing, or caring for her two-year-old. Yet her activities don't fall into our economic or political models of work, despite being physically and emotionally demanding, very time consuming, and of enormous benefit to society. Why do so few of us describe caring for young children as 'work'?
I cannot count the times I wanted to punch someone when they asked me, the mother of three pre-schoolers, when I was going back to work. If, as regularly happened, they went on to say 'it's such a privilege to be able to stay home', I'd have to sit on my fist. Caring for three young children always felt like work enough for me, especially as I often also cared for an extra child or two. If, however, I had been employed as a childcare worker – and put my own kids in paid care to do it – everyone would have given me a pat on the back for re-entering 'the workforce'.
Many mothers I know privately describe their paid work as 'time off'. When they're 'at work' they can concentrate with no interruption; they can grab a coffee and have a few minutes' peaceful contemplation; they can use their minds and training and see the fruits of their labour; they earn money and status because they are 'employed'; and they can pee alone. Once they collect the kids, they're feel like they're on a hamster wheel of taxiing, cooking dinner, listening to readers, washing dishes, bathing kids, tucking them into bed, putting on a load of washing, sweeping the floor, hanging the washing out, and preparing lunches for the next day.
I used to think these friends of mine were being funny when they described their jobs as 'time off', but now I have more time for 'work', that is, study and writing, I see how right they are. It is so affirming to do things which use a bigger skill set; I am beginning to feel like a fully-fledged adult. Study and writing and meetings and seminars do feel like time off (not to mention that blissfully empty time, the commute); even so, I jealously protect the time with the powerful word, 'work', to describe it all.
So what are the activities I rarely describe as work? Unlike my old friend, I'm no longer breastfeeding or changing nappies, thank goodness, but there's still the cooking (don't run in the kitchen, I'm using the big knife), cleaning (I only mopped yesterday, just look at this floor!), laundry (that's two outfits for the day young lady I don't care if it's dirty you're wearing it again tomorrow), washing up (how many cups did you use today???), taking children to and from kinder (where's your lunchbox?) and school (where's your helmet?) and piano lessons (didn't you practice???), braiding hair (I asked you to brush it), working in the school canteen (no you can't have a cupcake just because I'm here), reading with my kids (use a bookmark, not my shopping list/your shoe/a used tissue for god's sake!) and school kids, organising playdates (no you can't watch YouTube when you have a friend over), telling my kids to sit up straight and chew their food properly and put your knees down at once!, shopping for food and shoes and birthday presents, organising church suppers, pruning the roses, telling my kids to use a tissue and put it in the bin!, changing the sheets, overseeing tooth brushing, scrubbing muddy handprints off the walls, combing out nits (sit still!), calling and waiting for tradies, wiping down the benches, taking kids to the doctor and dentist and hairdresser, planting, weeding and watering veggies, reminding kids to put your damn clothes in the wash/away/does this floor look like a laundry basket?, managing multiple food allergies and intolerances (is that really worth eczema and stomach cramps?), feeding the school chooks and guinea pigs (don't squeeze the poor creature!), doing the family paperwork (when did your teacher give you this form?), fixing things (exactly HOW did you break it?), paying bills (do you think we're made of money?), and a thousand other activities.
Some want to describe all this as 'work' – and there are times when I do, too – yet I am largely reluctant to use that word. It's an uphill battle to reframe language. Most people use 'work' to mean 'job' or 'employment'; it's not automatic to use it for household duties. In any case, all these activities are about our primary relationships, and I don't want to reduce the enormous richness and complexity of running a household and caring for children to a set of economic activities, which is what 'work' usually suggests; family life is so much greater than that. Finally, paid work is not 'time off' or a pleasure for many people; it's the job they do so they can afford a roof over their heads and kids under the roof. To describe maintaining that home and caring for children as 'work' when those activities are experienced as a great privilege and a pleasure is, to many people, bizarre.
So I feel the need for another word. 'Housework' doesn't begin to cut it; to me, the word evokes a low heeled woman wearing a frilly apron and carrying a feather duster, and it completely overlooks all the relational aspects of caring for children and maintaining other household relationships. 'Housekeeping', too, doesn't quite fit because, like 'housework', the word is focussed on the physical structure of the house and doesn't provide for the people within it. If you employ a housekeeper, you also need a nanny; housekeepers don't care for children or anyone else.
Another possibility is the word 'homemaking'. It's a word that largely connotes women's work because of a social history in which women have spent the last however long as the primary workers in the home and carers of the people in it; in fact, some dictionaries go so far as to define it as a role some women (not men) adopt. And yet, on reflection, homemaking is not a verb which is intrinsically gendered: every man, woman and child engages in homemaking in some form or another.
Just think of the child who carefully places a pretty snail shell on a shelf; the man who takes out the garbage; the woman who sweeps the floor; the kids who build a cubby; and the baby who by her cries draws the household near. They are all homemakers, building the place where they live and shaping the relationships they have with the other people there.
So the home includes the place, and the objects and people within it; the members of the household co-create and maintain the place they call home through physical labour and relational work; and I can call this activity 'homemaking'.
I've found a word I can work with. I will continue to call any industrious activity outside the house 'work'; and all the things I do in and for the household I will call 'homemaking', instead.