What Defines “Work”?

One of the problems I have anytime people are trying to quantify a mother’s work is that I think it’s basically impossible. (Last Sunday’s NY TImes article on “equal parenting” is sure causing quite a stir among couples I know…)

I am, you might say, officially “off duty” at 10:43 at night – both kids asleep – and yet, if I were a sitter, I’d still be getting paid, and my ear is cocked, my boobs at the ready should they be needed, etc.

That is, I very rarely “get off work.”

Is it possible to walk off the job? To take a break? Without putting the kids in danger? I’m not so sure. There are times when I want to say to my partner, “You know what? The diapers are full, everyone’s hungry and bored, no one wants to sleep, but I really want to go read a book up a tree while drinking colt 45 – see ya!”

But I don’t.

The other problem with the whole “parenting as work thing” is that it’s not always totally pure work – kind of like when you’re in the office and surfing the web. It’s enjoyable loafing that kind of counts as work, because heck, you’re putting in your time at the desk and no doubt, you need to know what’s going on in the world, too, don’t you?

So yeah, I have “playdates” and “coffee” and “pool time,” during which I have a lot of fun with other people and / or my kids, and that is very hard to call work at all, because I’m just living, it’s not “work.”

Which makes me sad, really, because when did “work” become something so forced, formal, external, disconnected? Somewhere as humans moved from being hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists whose work and play blended together, religion and food-gathering part of the same activity, we got more and more removed from how we obtained our food, we ended up typing in cubes…

Being a parent can be work, it can also be pleasure, and trying to account for it, while I get the intention, is trying to take something amazing and amorphous and screw it into a cube that comes from a whole separate kind of ideology. Instead, why don’t we try to make “work” fit into the parenting/domestic/female-type idea of Being? Why don’t we try to integrate what we do with who we are and how we live, as opposed to trying to fit the latter into what we do?

Am I making sense? I feel like it’s “feminist” to quantify “mother” “work” – but I think that’s a very superficial assumption. It’s far more feminist to envision a reversal, an upheaval of the whole stratified, rigidified system of “workers” in our capitalist society.

Revolution, you know, begins at home.


2 Responses to What Defines “Work”?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Colt 45? Really? =)

  2. Mary Beth says:

    Oh my gosh I was going to say the EXACT same comment as Elizabeth!

    But other than that, I will also say that I think parenting became a lot more work when our social support systems diminished to only the parents in question. Do you know how much harder it is to be a parent when there is only you to help out? I feel like me and my husband just trade the “overworked about to break down” baton back and forth. This all ties in to feminism, and working, and changes in our society structure too. Everything seems to be getting compartmentalized. You either work or you stay at home (Of course there are in betweens, but it seems like everything is set up that way). And if you stay at home, supervising for the children takes up so much time and energy, and if you have a partner, they are probably working extra to make up for the one income, leaving you with that much less support. If you work, you have precious hours to accomplish a million things including bonding with everyone, caring for yourself, and all the other crap. So, within these choices, you can see how hanging at the pool with a baby who tries to walk into every danger trap and a toddler who cries as their customary response to all language is not, in the end, really loafing…..it’s busying, but it’s also so apart from other kinds of activities that it’s lonely, and frustrating. Yes, capitalism says work = getting a paycheck. But, no one has to believe in that. Sadly, though, one really has to drum up lots of connections to feel gratification in non-traditional “work”. I think people who are artists, spiritual recluses, older, children also struggle with feeling left out of the definition of “worker” and “work”. Changes definitely need to occur! I saw on some website linked to this blog a mom’s activism project to send senators your resumes – meaning, resumes of your non-traditionally considered “work” work. That would be a fun project to do here! We could see all the types of work that people contribute every day, and recognize that.

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