The Mother of all Work

Here on Abolish Work I try to focus on as many intersecting issues with work as possible. One of those issues has been play, another has been time poverty and still another has been excessive work hours in the US.

Another obvious offshoot of all of these intersections is the way that work affects women.

Now, I consider myself a feminist.

Okay, before you write me off (or unquestionably love me, either/or) let me explain.

First, I consider there to be intersections where feminism and anti-work philosophy meet each other.

In this post I’m just going to offer one of them but it’s a big one: The disparities in home-labor between mothers and fathers.

As far as I’m aware it’s a fairly non-controversial claim to say that women tend to be child-raisers more than men. They tend to be the one who raise the child, clean up the messes, take care of the house work, etc. All of this has certainly gotten better but it’s still a phenomenon I don’t think most people would say has gone away.

My end goal, for those curious, isn’t a world where everything is somehow completely equally burdened by all genders. Not only is that mathematically impossible but it seems unlikely that you’ll be able to convince everyone to do that. Some women enjoy house work and some guys enjoy not doing house work. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with either. But the work-life balance in America (at least) is such that this state of affairs means mothers are typically overwhelmed in many ways.

Aya de Leon, a blogger, activist and mother herself writes in Working Moms & the Battle for Play:

From flawed studies to commercials to peer pressure from “helicopter moms,” countless daily messages reinforce mothers’ anxiety that only our perfectly attentive presence 24/7 will ensure our children’s well-being.

Yet meanwhile the economy demands two incomes for families to keep up with rising cost of living. Economic insecurity and mistreatment of workers keeps everyone anxious and determined to be the perfect worker in order to keep their jobs and ensure their economic survival. This fear-based pressure intensifies for parents and in times of economic recession.

And (unlike many European societies) the US refuses to organize structures to support families in general and working families in particular. So we working mothers live in the center of this dual pressure, using our sheer will and overwork to ensure our economic survival and our children’s well-being.

Leon got these insights from reading Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Which isn’t a book I had heard of before now, which again, shows my lack of research on the intersections of anti-work and feminist concerns.

To be clear, my sort of feminism isn’t progressive feminism. I reject Marxist, progressive and most mainstream sorts of feminism in favor of anarcha-feminism. Specifically from thinkers like Voltairine de Cleyre and more contemporaneously folks like Cathy Reisenwitz, Charles Johnson and Roderick T. Long and others (though not necessarily all) who’d identify as an individualist feminist.

In this specific context, I see the anti-work philosophy giving more force to the feminist concern of mothers (especially mothers who are people of color) and being overworked. The anti-work philosophy advocates that women should not only have time for play but that play becomes more practical to have than work does. And further, that the work-life balance becomes much more in favor of life than the other way around.

My claim isn’t that you need to believe in anti-work philosophy to be a feminist. Or that you need to be a feminist to abide by an anti-work philosophy. But in that either case these ideas can reinforce each other in helpful ways. Both of these ideologies can help us reveal blind spots that sometimes happen in the other.

For instance, most anti-work people have largely ignored the intersections between feminism and anti-work altogether. There’s a notable exception however in Kathi Weeks The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries. But unfortunately I’m not a Marxist and so my strand of feminism (a relatively obscure one, I admit) is still left out of the larger discourse.

Getting back to the more pressing matters that Leon has mentioned, I thnik there are ways that anti-work philosophy could rely on some of its basic tenants to offer advice for overworked mothers. To see how that’s the case let’s look at some of Schulte’s recommendations for mothers who feel overwhelmed.

1. Pause. Just take a moment to stop. Breathe. Take a walk. Do whatever it takes to disrupt the mindless cycle of busyness. Ask yourself: Do I really want to be baking these cupcakes at 2 a.m.? Be at the office until late at night? Why am I doing this? Create space to reflect about what’s most important to you and how to make time for that.

2. Be aware of the pressure of cultural ideals. At work, we value the Ideal Worker who puts in insanely long hours of overwork and devotes body and soul to the job. At home, we value the Ideal Mother who is self-sacrificing and always available to her children. The standards for what we think it takes to be a good mother have never been higher, nor have we expected mothers to do so much alone. Be aware that right now, we wear our busyness like a badge of honor. Watch how you talk and think about your time. Are you really that busy, or need to be? Or do you feel compelled to be because everyone else is, and that’s how we show our status and fit in? Be aware that these cultural ideals can work powerfully on an unconscious level. Uncover. Strive to make unconscious bias conscious.

3. Set your own priorities. And create a network of like-minded people so you can support each other in not being busy, glorifying overwork, or overdoing at home. It’s hard to buck the status quo on your own.

6. Set common standards and share the load. Research shows that even the most egalitarian-minded couples start to slide into traditional gender roles once the baby comes home. One study found that women began to do more around the house, and men less. Much of that is a function of our system, that’s more likely to permit women to take maternity leave, giving them the time to develop confidence and competence with the new baby. Men don’t get that. Paternity leave, if they have access to any, is short, and tends to be taken along with the mother. Take a page from gay couples. Figure out all the work it takes to run the house and family. Find a way to share work and home duties fairly. It may not be 50/50, but it has to feel fair to both of you. Set common standards. Automate. Create systems for who does what, so you don’t have to keep negotiating and keeping score, and find a way to keep each other accountable. Stop redoing chores that you think your partner has done badly. And focus on the fun you’ll all have when the chores are done, or not.

8. More is not better. Find the sweet spot. Think of the inverted U curve. Too little isn’t enough. Too much, and you get stress and overwhelm. Find the sweet spot, the “good enough” spot for your work, your activities. Does it have to be an hour-long workout to count? How about 20 sit ups, 20 squats, and 20 push ups on days you’re pressed for time? That counts. Want to meditate everyday? Give yourself a back door. Five breaths on the edge of the bed counts.

9. Schedule play. What gets scheduled gets done. And until play and leisure become more acceptable in our work-focused culture, we’re going to need to make an effort to bring it into our lives. That means taking vacation and leaving work behind and cellphones off, at least for some of the time. That means letting your kids have unstructured time to wonder, wander, noodle, get bored, and learn how to get unbored. That means women, who’ve never had a history or culture of leisure, need to realize that they don’t have to earn leisure by getting to the end of a to-do list, which never ends, but that they deserve it. Right now. Couples should “co-sponsor” each other to make sure you each have time to do what gives you joy and feeds your soul on your own, and then make time to connect with each other.

This is over half of the list and these are all suggestions that I could easily see anti-work folks make.

The purpose of this particular post isn’t to convince you of my particular branch of feminism. But hopefully it will give you some ideas about how feminism and anti-work can intersect in useful ways. I also hope to have more posts as time goes that relate to feminist issues.

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3 thoughts on “The Mother of all Work

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