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.

House-dwelling makes us lazy?

in defense of vanlife

I didn’t start out as an advocate of ‘van-life’. I thought it was going to be a sacrifice: a means to an end; something to endure to be able to travel. I was dreading the confinement of three of us in a small space and the lack of a decent shower or bath. But the longer we spend on the road, and the more we switch from van to house and back to van, the more I appreciate van-life rather than house-dwelling.

Since we have been on the road we tend to travel for a month or so, then stay put for a few weeks. We often stay on campsite but sometimes we rent a holiday-let if we can find one for a good price. We have rented a studio in the Basque Country, a little one-bed holiday flat in Armacao de Pera in the Algarve and a two-bed flat with garden in Los Caños de Meca in Andalucia. We rent a house or flat for a number of reasons: so we can settle and get to know a local area and community there a bit more intimately, to stretch out a bit and sleep in a longer bed (our camper bed is only 5ft 8 inches long), so our toddler can run around in a contained area (our camper is ten square metres in TOTAL) and so we can download films and books on the internet.

And for these things, living in a house is great. But we have found house-dwelling makes us lazy.

We find we very quickly switch between the different ways of living. In a house we fall into:
– constantly doing laundry, even if it’s not really dirty we just wash it anyway
– Leaving the washing up to pile up
– Not tidying up: there’s plenty of space not to
– Staying inside even if it’s quite nice out
– Watching TV and surfing the net excessively, including our toddler
– Going to bed too late

Whereas with van-life we tend to:
-do laundry once a fortnight when we find a campsite with a machine
-Wash up everything after each meal and put it all away- there is nowhere to put dirty dishes down and not enough space to carry spares
– put everything away after its use. Everything -toys, books, clothes, food -has its place. The space becomes claustrophobic if it’s untidy
– Go outside to stretch out to explore at least twice a day if not more
– Never watch TV: we don’t have one
– Surf the net only when we can access WiFi  and go to bed much earlier
– Our son goes on his screen much less: maybe less than an hour a day

There is something that feels more wholesome and satisfying about this way of life, on a basic level.

Van-life amplifies our experience of the weather, which we feel connects us with the natural environment more. We are much more aware of the weather and move with it rather than stay indoors and ignore it. Of course a lot of rain is challenging with a toddler who wants to go outside but generally the weather even within one day is more of a mixed bag. Because the van is a small space we go out much more regularly to stretch out. Even if it’s cold we just wrap up. We watch the clouds and the forecast and plan our day around it. And while it can get difficult and claustrophobic if our son is cooped up in the van too long, he’s much happier and therefore more manageable inside when he is going outside most of the day. We find we are much more in-tune with the dawn and dusk also. While we do have electric lights we feel the sunrise and sunset more acutely. We get up with the sunrise in the morning and currently the sun sets at 7, and our son goes to bed in his bunk not long after. We watch one of our downloaded films, read or do some research on the net for a bit, but soon follow, as the temperature drops and the bed at the other end of the bus looks more and more inviting. We find there is no space or inclination for slobbing around half-watching-TV-whilst-inanely-scrolling-Facebook, as we tend to in a house.

The van also amplifies our experience of daily survival tasks such as parenting, cooking and cleaning. While we feel like we are constantly cleaning and tidying when we are on the road, there is a sense of achievement as it feels like the tasks are productive: a focus rather than a distraction from something else that’s got to be done (see my blog post about ‘work’).img_3866

Perhaps there is also something about travelling, rather than being stationary where there is always something new- people, scenery, customs- that keeps us active, and makes it impossible to laze about.

I just re-read this post and I can see people reading it thinking, ‘get a job, then house-dwelling does not make you lazy.’ I guess what I am saying is house-dwelling makes us comfortable. But there is a danger in this comfort, in that you can become lazy and passive. Whether doing paid work or not. What I appreciate about van-life is being out of that comfort zone which feels more connected and more free.

Survival or specialisation?

what do we want for the next generation?

As I was growing up, I never had to do any chores or anything to help in the home. No washing up, no laundry, no cleaning, no cooking. The most I did was take my plate to the kitchen when I’d finished my dinner. At my dad’s house he expected us to offer to wash up (that’s polite) but we rarely actually did it. My mum’s reasoning was that she wanted us to focus on our school homework, so she didn’t want us to be distracted with chores. My mum’s goal was for us to have a good education and for that to give us the best opportunities in life. Her approach certainly worked for these purposes: my sister and I both worked and studied hard and got excellent academic results. I guess what my mum’s approach enabled us to do was to specialise – it has enabled us both to access good careers but neither of us can cook and we are embarrassingly undomesticated. Furthermore, my partner says if I was left to fend for myself in the wild I wouldn’t last two minutes. He’s right.

In the context of 1980s feminism and rising possibilities for social mobility, my mum’s focus on her daughter’s education was an understandable goal. But what are our goals now, today, in 2018? Do we want our son to specialise on his one career? My partner certainly doesn’t want that. He wants our son to be self-sufficient; an ‘all-rounder’; multi-skilled; survivalist.

Is not the era of specialisation dead anyway? There are no more ‘jobs for life’. Most people, we are told, will have three or four different careers in their lifetime. We are told we need to be ‘Entrepreneurial’ – adaptable, flexible. As a parent, what’s the best way to achieve that for a child? Should we be raising our children to be flexible to the needs of capitalism; to be able to adapt and survive in an ever-changing technologically advancing job market? Or do we want to bring up our children to be able to survive, to know themselves, to feed their basic needs, when all this melts away?img_3694

In my research on the London middle classes, we found parents who talked about ‘global travel’ as a kind of ‘cultural capital’ for their kids, an experience that they can ‘cash in’ for a university place or a job. In my experience, the middle classes always talk in this way: searching for ways to capitalise on something. (This is not their fault but the system). I hate to think of our travels with our son in this instrumental way. And I know my partner doesn’t. But I am burdened with a sociological knowledge and understanding, which is just that: a burden, that prevents you from just being. How can you know ‘game theory’ and not apply it, right?

So I guess it’s what you do with that knowledge. We want to think beyond the instrumental. To provide our children with the (multi) skills to be of value in the community, rather than be of value to an employer; to share skills rather than compete for them. When we are deciding what to teach the next generation, what to guide them to study, we want to always hold in mind ‘what is of value to the community?’ (I.e. all of us) rather than ‘what gets them ahead in the rat race?’.