The Work that Counts

June 6th, 2012

Measuring the value of unpaid work

I was feeling like I’ve lost an entire week of productivity to transitioning to summer–playing phone tag with camp registrars, filling out enrollment forms, rounding up medical forms, getting passport photos made and applications submitted, figuring out new bed, bath and wakeup routines. All in triplicate. My last journal entry–over a week ago– is a grid to help me remember who I’ve signed up for what, when and where.

On top of that, throw an emergency car purchase upon learning our nine-year-old minivan’s air conditioner would cost almost as much to fix as the whole vehicle was worth, and there go another two days I’ll never get back.

It all seemed like a colossal, extravagant waste of precious writing time, until I saw this quote this morning, from Seth Godin:

A big part of doing your work is defending your time and your attention so you can do your work.

As a work-at-home, self-employed mom, I continually struggle with defining my job.

I know that writing a book, or a magazine article is work. That’s easy, because someone will pay me (and tax me) for it. Blogging is an important part of my work, though it doesn’t pay directly. Other social media, like Twitter or Facebook, is sometimes a legitimate part of my work, but then sometimes not.

Where it really gets fuzzy is on the domestic administration end. Is securing summertime care for the kids part of my work? According to the quote above, it’s a big part. What about obtaining reliable transportation? No one paid me for that, but without it, it was getting a lot harder to function efficiently.

And what about the tasks that can’t be tied to a dollar at all? Like medical appointments, family vacation planning, menu planning, grocery list making, mail handling, and (theoretically) housekeeping. These are the functions that directly serve the people who matter most to me in all the world. So why is it so hard to see them as legitimate and deserving of energy and time? Why do I feel consumed with guilt when they pull me away from my “real” work?

Several years ago, I attended an economics lecture where it was argued that the GDP is a completely inaccurate measure of the world economy, because it doesn’t account for the enormous value of unpaid domestic work (mainly performed by women) — work without which all economies and societies would crumble. In the language of money, there are no words for this work.

If it isn’t counted, it doesn’t count.

Am I all alone in my first-world grappling with the trickle down effect of this paradigm? Do you find it difficult to acknowledge and legitimize unpaid work? Or are you clear on your own job description?




13 Responses to “The Work that Counts”

  1. tamara says:

    I am usually pretty clear on my job description – I am a Human Development Specialist (aka the stay at home Mom!)
    I personally don’t find it hard to legitimize my ‘unpaid work’ – but do sometimes feel a little defensive with comments like – “oh you’re so lucky”, and “oh, … you don’t work?”
    I bloody well do work, and hard! It is also not ‘luck’ – it is a choice my husband and I made in choosing our family life.
    I enjoy taking care of my family, but there is definitely ‘real work’ involved. It’s just not always recognized in our world!
    Thanks for this Kyran, nice to see a new post 🙂

    • Tamara, I can relate to bristling at the implication that being at home with one’s children is some kind of lifestyle windfall. I was also “lucky” to make that choice, if you consider the significant financial risks and sacrifices “luck!”

  2. kazari says:

    I’m a full-time-work-outside-the-home-single-mama-of-a-toddler. So my work looks very different to yours. And yet, Seth’s quote rings true for me as well.
    I have spent the last three days writing procedures so another section can take on some of the ‘batchable’ work we do. Also, trying to confirm funding my contractors for the new financial year. Also, placcating managers of staff that have IT problems I have no control over. And booking accommodation for a work trip in July.
    I entirely resent the time these things take up – and yet, without them, my actual work would be harder to do. As a manager, I spend a big chunk of my time protecting the time and attention of my team, too. And none of this time is listed anywhere in my work plan.

    So its not just you. 🙂

    • It’s interesting to think about it, isn’t it? Maybe there’s a global ratio. Like, 2 parts administration to 1 part actual production (or something!) If we could just accept that as part of what it takes to make something, we could quit resenting those “supporting” tasks.

  3. You’ve really got me thinking. I work at home for my employer but have a lot of free time during my shift to get housework, administrative stuff and personal fun stuff done. When I “get” to do a load of laundry during work down time or break it feels quite different than “having” to do it when I’m off the clock and my kids need undies. It feels as if I’m getting more value out of that paid time – I guess because I am.

  4. Tamara says:

    Kryan, just came across this quote, thought you might appreciate relating to this post:
    “How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe?
    How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
    ― G.K. Chesterton
    love it!

  5. Patty says:

    I was just wondering about your thoughtful post–what role does Patrick play in maintaing your home or doing kid-related planning tasks? I ask because it took me a few years to get that balance with my spouse right. I work full time, he works almost full time during the school year and part-time in the summer. While I am the “administrator” of kid- and family-related plans, he is a great executor (e.g., I make the list and clean out the pantry, he picks up the groceries). Do you talk about how you balance each of your work loads with running the home, or is it assumed that you will just pick up all the household duties? Or agreed upon? If I was part-time, and my husband full time, I bet that I would end up doing most of the household work, but since it is not that way, it’s forced me to give up some control (choosing what to make for dinner revery night) while forcing him to pick up some slack…but in his own way! I know every couple figures it out their own way.

    • Well, there is a loaded question. The boundaries around his work hours are even more vague than mine! And since the link between his work and payday is usually a more direct and immediate one, his time seems less negotiable. We’ve never been very good at distributing domestic labor — partly because neither of us are much competent at it!

  6. Jen says:

    For me, as a working Mom, I find that balancing not only work and home responsibilities but also my perspective on the two is easily the most difficult task in the world.

    Logically, I realize that the work funds my family and provides for fundamental things like food and clothes, along with frivolity. And it hasn’t been hard for me to put parenting first, even though it’s meant that I haven’t climbed the proverbial corporate ladder nearly as fast or as high as I otherwise would have. I’m good with that sacrifice but I think of it in terms of just that – a worthy sacrifice – when I should think of it as two jobs, and the parenting just as important in terms of monetary value as the one that actually pays monetarily.

  7. Patty says:

    Regarding Jen’s comment about it being “two jobs” instead of a “worthy sacrifice” really resonates with me. As the breadwinner in our family, with my husband picking up the slack at home and working (but with a much more flexible schedule), that is exactly how I sold our arrangement to him: two jobs that support the family, but in distinct ways. Both are necessary to keep our family functioning well, but they are not the same job.

  8. Kathleen says:

    I am a little bit late to the discussions, but have been a bit backed-up on my blog reading due to the same dilemma. I now work at home as a freelance writer and struggle with the same things. As a single mom (widowed young) of a four-year-old, I struggle with finding the right balance. There are never enough hours in the day – I know that – so how do I divy up the hours between pitching stories, writing from the heart, writing for the blog, connecting on Twitter, planning our vacation, and heading to the beach with my son?

    I’m hoping right now, the situation is exacerbated by the summertime. Think fall will bring around a change?

    Love the blog by the way! (So, make time for the blog writing!)

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