I moved in with Dave about a month ago. This new domestic situation – I have spent the last seven years living platonically in share houses – has caused me to confront again the issue of work.
I’ll be frank. Compared to many of my friends, and possibly the majority of the world’s population, I live a pretty cruisy existence. When others complain about being run ragged working late at the office or getting up five times throughout the night to tend to a screaming child, I can sympathise, but not really relate.
My week is set out thus. I am engaged in paid employment three days a week, as a researcher at a most esteemed academic institution. I could work more if I wanted, but I don’t, because I would rather spend my time doing other things. I volunteer at Credo one day a week, where I chop veggies in the morning and run a creative writing group in the afternoon. This leaves one weekday left, which I call my ‘free’ day, and utilize it for my own creative pursuits, whether it be writing or researching (I’m currently working on a book), or, as has been the case more recently, attend wedding dress fittings and look at flower posies on the internet.
And then I have a weekend – because everybody needs a rest, don’t they?
The fact that I’m not chained to a desk five days a week or doing something similarly painful with my time is a common source of guilt for me. I can’t remember which philosopher said, “I think, therefore I am”, but I think a more true motto for our society would be, “I do, therefore I am”. Hence we all ask the question, “What do you do?” at awkward social events, because its answer is defining.
But here’s the catch – the ‘do’ bit is only really defining when it has some kind of economic value.
Which gets me thinking – have you ever found it extra awkward asking a woman that question? Not when she’s in a business suit and heels, because then it’s obvious that she spends her days in some kind of paid employment – but when she’s the wife of someone and is wearing something different or has some kind of demeanor that makes you think that she might be a homemaker?
The awkwardness, for me, arises if and when she chooses an answer involving the word ‘just’ – as in, “I just look after the kids”. You have a choice, then, of either being a bit sad about her choice of the word ‘just’ and move on her ask her about her kids, or tell her, righteously, “There is no just when it comes to looking after kids!”
The fact is that I’m a bit awkward about unpaid employment. And I’ll take a stab and suggest that other people might be a bit awkward as well.
It’s ok to be studying, because it’s the lead up to paid work, and it’s ok to be retired because it means you’ve spent a fair chunk of your life doing paid work – but unpaid work on its own is embarrassing and awkward probably because society doesn’t value it very much.
So, I feel guilty about my two days of unpaid work. The volunteer work isn’t so bad – I suppose because I feel like it has an economic value. I see it as a donation. My ‘free’ day, on the other hand, doesn’t really have an economic value, it’s mainly for me and my creative headspace, working towards a nebulous goal that I feel is nonetheless important.
Things have changed upon my recent co-habitation. There is now a question hovering in the background that we only occasionally ask outright: What are we both contributing to this partnership? David works full time in a paid job and so his question is easy to answer. My non-paid work requires more effort to rationalize.
We decided that as a couple we were happy to give a certain amount of time to the community, which my volunteer day feeds into. My ‘free’ day, however, raises the question of ‘What is work’? Is writing and thinking and researching ‘work’, when I don’t get paid for it, or payment might not amount to much and could be a long way away and – to make matters worse – I enjoy it? What about spending time with my sister and her baby – this is very important but is it work? Hanging out with my bridesmaid to make sure she’s down with the flowers and hairstyles? Baking biscuits for the new neighbours that moved in? Tending to my vegetable garden that doesn’t produce many vegetables but does produce lots of interactions with other community members? Are these things work? Sometimes I feel like I work really hard doing some of these things, but I struggle to call them work, and then I feel guilty for investing so much in them, when I could be using that time to earn money.
And then I have this feeling that I should do extra housework to make up for it, which is also awkward and embarrassing because it seems really backward and sexist, and David is a Sensitive New Age Guy.
But many of these activities that I love are what forms the social glue in our society, so they are immensely important. Apart from being unpaid they are also so…well, female! ...which is also why they are undervalued. And this forms the basis of another source of my guilt, because staying home a day a week partly to do traditionally female activities, while my husband-to-be brings home the bacon (or tofu), is SO not the go-getter feminist I was brought up to be.
Oh, if only I was a man, and then I could do as much housework and baking for the neighbours as I wanted and it would be cool!