A pleasantly long train journey in the ‘Silence’-compartment, followed by a Sunday evening with tea and something sweet… that was the time I needed to read Lynn Berger’s fascinating essay, which has appeared in mini-book form with the title ‘I already work (I just don’t get paid for it)’. The argument has just under 100 pages on slightly larger than A6 format and no fewer than 150 references. Anyone who wants to read more about the subject of ‘paid and unpaid work’ can therefore go ahead. It is always a pleasure to see that an argument is well substantiated.
Berger herself speaks in her final statements of ‘a small essay on a big subject’ (p. 85) and she has a very good point: her long list of literature references supports that position. There are a huge number of perspectives from which you can look at (lack of) remuneration for work. The fact that the lack of financial and social appreciation for certain activities means that they are not counted in the Gross Domestic Product, has all kinds of policy and psychosocial consequences and causes that are insufficiently recognised.
Incidentally, despite the long list, there is still a great deal of literature that has remained unnamed that could greatly increase the insight into this entire subject. I will get back to this.
The booklet is divided into three parts:
- The work that makes all other work possible
- Part-time country the Netherlands: a short history
- The struggle for our livelihood
In 1. we get an overview of statistical data on work, vacancies, division of labour between men and women, informal care, government expenditure in various social sectors and an explanation of the tension between paid and unpaid work. This also stimulates the discussion about what that actually is, ‘work’: what do we mean by it? When do we call certain activities ‘work’? It is a relief to hear Berger argue that despite the fact that many activities are not seen as work because they are unpaid, they are nevertheless of inestimable value: ‘Without this work there is no economy’ ( p. 18), because many of these tasks are work ‘that maintains, repairs and advances society’ (p. 14). Berger mentions a few terms from the public debate about unpaid work and puts them in quotation marks: ‘part-time decadence’, ‘part-time princesses’, ‘participatory society’. She ends this part with the conclusion that caring for others is also work.
In 2. Berger provides an overview of how the division of labour has shifted over the centuries from a home situation where everything happened (household, taking care of children, growing crops, herding livestock, producing food, practicing crafts), to industrialized settings leading to specialisation and division of ‘caring at home’ and ‘producing elsewhere’. She sums it up this way: ‘This is how capitalism profited from unpaid work, without supporting it’ (p. 29). Subsequently, the breadwinner model and the welfare state developed, both ‘entirely based on the nuclear family in which the man earned the money and the woman took unpaid care of children, the elderly and sick relatives’ (p. 30). She explains this on the basis of the subordination of women and the work they often performed through the centuries. This was legally encouraged by making women ‘incapacitated’ and denying them the right to paid work and firing them as soon as they married.
Towards the end of 2. Certain themes appear that give me a sense of friction. For example, Berger speaks somewhat condescendingly about the Dutch tendency to find two or three days at the childcare facility enough for the young child. It should be much more normal, she argues, to just take your child there full-time, so that you have your hands free for any work, especially paid work. She rightly notes that the emancipation of some groups of women goes over the backs of other women, for example when highly paid women buy help for the household and children. This help is often provided by poorly paid, undeclared women (sometimes immigrants who elsewhere have left their own families), who therefore have no social benefits and do not accrue a pension (p. 46). She seems to encourage women’s emancipation, but unfortunately I do not read a plea for the emancipation of the baby.
About maternity leave, she says that it is often too short and ends at a time when a mother is not yet ready to hand over her fragile baby: ‘[A]nd thus she chooses a parttime job, so that she can also have a few days to take care of her baby herself’ (p. 47). And that this leads to a limitation of the mother’s salary is referred to as the ‘baby fine’ (p. 48). That is not her term; I am aware of that, but all in all I think it is becoming a somewhat difficult story, also in combination with the term ‘maternity ideology’, ‘the belief that children benefit most from the dedicated, full-time care of their mother’ (p. 30) and the ‘paternity ideology’, ‘the belief that the ideal father is one who earns enough money to support an entire family’ (p. 31). Berger says these ideologies are persistent and limiting because ‘everyone [brings] into the world the hormonal, neurological, and psychological mechanisms involved in care’ (p. 57). That may be true, but on the assertion that it has nothing to do with their character or nature that women ‘care more, easier and faster’ (p. 58), I would like to express a friendly but sincere and resounding ‘No’. That babies need their mother, is not an ideology; that is a biological given.
I am a strong supporter of equity between men and women. From my point of view, however, I think it is important to be alert about confusing equity and equality. Men and women are not equal. The female body is biologically essentially different from the male body in terms of structure and functioning. Just this week I watched the film ‘In Utero’ again after a number of years, about what a child experiences in the womb (see also here). This is the field of pre- and perinatal psychology and deals with the impact of maternal physiology on the developing foetus. Once the baby is born, full of imprints of the mother’s emotional life, which has reached the unborn child through sounds and hormones, the baby is supposed to go to the breast. There, the child’s stomach, brain and immune system are fed with everything babies need to achieve optimal development. That, too, is a very fine and carefully tuned hormonal process to which the father’s body contributes little to nothing. (Yo, man: deal with it!) Sure, he protects mother and child from negative outside influences and that is also a crucial task. However, he is not equal to the mother and the baby will simply be worse off without the mother’s breast and body.
The familiarity of the mother’s body, in which the baby has been for months, is helpful in developing a sense of security and self-regulation. All the hormonal changes that the pregnant, birthing, lactating female body goes through mean that she is optimally equipped to become sensitively attuned to (the needs and expectations of) the baby. Fathers can certainly learn a lot in that area, but there are also things they simply cannot do, namely carrying, giving birth and breastfeeding. In reference 115, Berger rightly quotes ‘Mothers and Others’, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s wonderful book on alloparenting (shared parenting), but I don’t know if she also read all the passages about the influence of breastfeeding and lactation on bonding, well-being and health. Blaffer says valuable and essential things about that. Next to this title, I have a nice library of other authors who have something to say about breastfeeding. Berger is very welcome to come and take a peek.
Next week I will have a closer look at the difference between equity and equality and what that means for caring for young children.