What is Work?

‘You are not working at the moment then?’ I was recently asked. This is probably something that makes most stay-at-home-mums wince, as you are working so hard on a daily basis you literally fall asleep in your dinner. As a couple who are ‘not currently working’ but raising a toddler ‘on the road’, this question prompted a wider discussion between my partner and I about what is work and, perhaps more explicitly, what is work that is valued?

I’ve written a blog post about how it’s almost impossible to be lazy travelling with a toddler in a campervan, as alongside the work that’s involved in travelling (route planning, driving, packing and unpacking), parenting and daily survival tasks take up the entirety of two adults’ time, and we are still knackered at the end of every day.

However, while we feel like we are constantly cleaning and tidying up in the van, we find we interact with the task more, and appreciate the work done because it becomes our daily focus. When you have children it feels like all you are doing most of the time is cleaning and tidying anyway. However, having to fit paid work in around childrearing and these daily survival tasks makes these tasks feel like ‘extra’ chores rather than what we should focus on. When daily survival tasks feel like extra chores we rush them, we cut corners, we eat badly, the environment suffers (‘I haven’t got time to think about it!’) and we feel unsatisfied, harassed, overburdened.

Alternatively we don’t do these daily survival tasks at all: we outsource them. As I did when I worked a fifty hour week. We work so long we have such little time for child-rearing or cooking and cleaning that we subcontract all or some of these tasks to childminders, cleaners and restaurants. We are then unavoidably alienated from these basic survival activities.

189FACA8-3E27-488D-AA71-406C905CC06FWith life on the road we have found those daily chores become our life: preparing food, cooking, washing up, sweeping, making beds, airing furnishings, washing the vehicle and vehicle maintenance, washing the baby, hanging out laundry, washing and grooming ourselves when we find campsites with showers. In London I outsourced every single one of these tasks, I even tended to outsource grooming: with routine visits to beauticians for hair cuts, waxing, pedicure, massage.

When daily survival chores are done by us for us, we focus on them, we appreciate them, we take pride in experiencing them and perfecting the skills involved.

This takes me to a wider connected point about parenting. These daily survival activities are not only appreciated more but they are also the daily activities that our son sees us doing, emulates and takes part in. img_3856Without even knowing it, he is learning to cook, how to clean, how to clean and dry clothes. Not only is he learning how to do these tasks in a very real way, moreover he is learning that these tasks exist rather than them being hidden, as they are when they are outsourced. Nor is he learning them in a synthesised way that he might do at nursery (using a pretend washing machine or cutting pretend plastic vegetables).

That’s not to mention he is learning the other tasks that are routinely necessary for surviving Van Life such as filling up the water tank, charging the batteries, emptying the grey waste and the toilet. All these tasks connect us to, and remind us of, our water use, energy consumption and our waste in a way that house dwelling, again, alienates. (More on this in another blog piece).

Of course not everyone has the ability to focus on these tasks because not everyone is able to get away from doing paid work. This is not an attempt to say that we are doing a better job of parenting than anyone else. I think what I want to do is draw attention to the way that capitalism devalues these tasks (which are of course of great value and necessity to us) while valorising paid work, which is in the interests of capital.

Feminist writers have drawn widespread attention to the devaluation of domestic work in the home, referred to as the ‘second shift’ (clearly highlighting its secondary place). However feminist ‘answers’ have usually focused on:
a) giving women equal access to the ‘first shift’ of paid work, and
b) attempting to raise the status of domestic work as akin to the importance of paid work
Rather, perhaps, what we should all be doing is challenging the very notion that paid work is a necessary, useful or desirable pursuit for any of us.

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