Four years ago I went to a conference where the keynote address focussed on the corporeal effects of neo-liberalism, which is just a fancy way of saying our work patterns impact on our wellbeing. The gist of the talk was this: we are working harder under conditions of uncertainty and our bodies are paying the price. The topic was a hit and over the coffee break many people - most of them women - talked passionately about their experiences. But the message didn't resonate with me. I thought, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen".
Last week while in Brisbane I caught up with an old colleague. We were discussing the ways in which our institutions require us to work longer hours in increasingly diverse roles. I'm not so pleased with these expectations but my colleague felt differently. She said - you guessed it - "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen". I murmured something non-committal but I've been stewing over this exchange, wishing I had said what I thought: "Bullshit". How times do change.
What worried me about the comment last week was the tone. There was no attack, just a clear suggestion about the best way to deal with a tricky situation. But why is it self-evident that we need to bend our families and ourselves to the demands of our paid work? I'm trying to think through, and not just feel, why I find this expectation is more than a little bit wrong.
A couple of days ago we were very busy, bumbling and bustling in the autumn mists. Lu and I planted some broad bean seeds (probably too late for anything to happen to them) and she learned the difference between broadcasting and placing seeds in furrows. Then we searched for walnuts and cracked them open with a brick before hunting strawberries and discussing the merits of cleaning out the chicken coop. After this exchange (we came down in favour of not cleaning the coop today), we read Hooper Humperdink eight times in succession ("and Olivetta Oppenbeem. I'll have to order more ice cream" – I love that line, it’s very fine poetry). I fed Nell and to her delight, played "heads and shoulders, knees and toes" with her body, many times over. While Nell slept I walked the dog down to the deli to buy some thank you gifts and then dropped them by at a friend's house. Then Al and the girls went to the park while I went for a swim. Home to cook dinner, bathe the girls and dose them with cold medicine, and put them to bed with more stories. Not a dramatic day, and a good day.
In six days' time I won't be doing any of this. I'll be sitting at my desk, passing as a professional in a smart jacket and my nice shoes. Al will be looking after the girls and he won't be doing half these things; my day only happened with two parents on the ground. Next week, the intimacy and frustrations of all day contact will begin to dissolve. This isn't an epic tragedy but my small domestic losses have a cumulative effect on my world and our shared society.
It probably doesn’t really matter that Lu is learning self-sufficiency in the garden, or that she can forage for protein. But our day could be described as more than a series of tasks: I socialised my children; opted out of – and back into – consumerism; I invested in social networks; ensured my family enjoyed a balanced diet; and looked after my – and my family’s – physical and mental health. These actions are all social goods and many also have indirect positive economic benefits for society. But I suspect I would have to explain this to most people, whereas the goods of paid work seem self-evident.
It’s not a new issue, I know, but it’s new in my life. I’ve never really felt the need to justify my work and family choices in a way a lot of stay-at-home mothers experience, probably because I’ve always been heading back to work – thus fulfilling my duty as an economic being – and Al looks after the girls at home – thus avoiding the fraught debates over childcare (Al’s choices, on the other hand, confuse and confront almost everyone we come across). But I get the feeling I’m going to have to start explaining why I’m not working weekends and evenings, why I’m saying ‘no’, why I won’t be travelling; in short, why I won’t be giving my all to the organization that pays my wage. Even putting boundaries around my time I will feel I will be sacrificing a lot, and I will be, because my family is my core, my centre, my axis, and I feel most comfortable expressing this through my domestic activities. For other women, going back to work is a blessed and invigorating choice, and they may show their love for their kids in other ways. But my colleague – who’s a smart and critical thinker, and who openly struggles with the work-family balance herself – talks about the role of work as a given. It’s neither a choice nor a sacrifice but the natural order of things: work first.
I’ve spent seven months away from work and, while there’ve been some very hard time, it’s been on balance quite wonderful. I keep saying to people, “It’s such a luxury”, mindful of the economic pressures and truncated leave entitlements most people work under. But as I get ready to start up my work self I’m increasingly sorry that what we’ve had is a luxury – it should be something available to everyone. As I write this I think, ‘Well that’s not economically feasible’; even in my wish life the taken for granted-ness of the centrality of work asserts itself. But I’d like to think that I won’t forget what I’ve learned about the value of time and family in these months away, and that I’ll protect those lessons and values from the encroaching demands of work. I’m planning to stay in the kitchen – the metaphorical one, and my very own as well.
Eating from the garden: surprising strawberries, big as Lucy’s fist; rocket in sandwiches but not much else.