My husband and I have an ongoing “debate” about how much income we each should generate to be secure. I view income as just one part of the equation when calculating our “fair shares,” the other parts being everything it takes to create and maintain a family and home. Though he claims to “get it,” my husband insists on looking at our/my income and earning ability (i.e., paid labor) in isolation from the rest of our lives.
I’ve oriented my current employment around having small children. I work as an independent contractor with a guaranteed 15 days per month and pretty much complete freedom to work wherever and whenever I want. To secure this arrangement, I accepted a relatively low daily rate and I have no benefits — no paid time off, no maternity leave, and no employer-sponsored health insurance or retirement plan.
After years of making six figures, with fancy titles and full benefits to boot, I didn’t enter this arrangement lightly. It took a lot of negotiation, trial and error and time to work out the details. All the while I had a running conversation in my head about whether this is what I really wanted; whether I was selling myself short; whether my career would permanently veer off track. But for the life of me, I couldn’t picture having a conventional full-time job — one where you have to be physically present for at least 40 hours a week and mentally occupied for much more than that — while also raising two kids under 5.
Many, including myself, will be quick to point out that mine is a privileged problem to have. Far more women lack my options and resources, and they are juggling work, kids, family, life on little more than their own resilience and determination. But to simply accept that I should just be grateful for what I have obscures the underlying problem —everywhere in the world, “women’s work” is marginalized, invisible, even belittled, despite the fact that families, communities, entire societies depend on it for survival.
The fact that I can single-handedly provide the physical, mental, and emotional labor required to run a household and nurture a family and also earn income is no small feat. But this capacity, this skill doesn’t factor into my husband’s calculations with respect to our individual economic contributions. In fact, he thinks a lot of what I do is optional and/or could be replaced by purchasing more convenience products or by outsourcing the labor (no doubt to women of lower economic and educational status than us).
No one denies men the psychological connection between their labor (i.e., paid work) and their identity or questions the value it adds to the public and private spheres. In fact, our social, economic, and political institutions are built around helping straight white men compete in the economy and achieve. Paid work is organized around the “ideal worker” —someone who can work 40 or more hours per week and has a wife at home taking care of everything else. Men aren’t socialized to perform care work, and when they do, their noblesse oblige is lauded, as if they’d just discovered a cure for cancer.
In contrast, no one gives women awards for making sure there are clean sheets on the beds; scouring the Internet for how to deal (cope) with toddlers’ temper tantrums; being the heavy when it comes to disciplining kids; and, for the thousandth time, telling your husband where we keep the infant Tylenol. There’s no material reward for staying up all night to meet a work deadline while your partner is traveling and the kids have been home sick. At best, there’s saccharin rhetoric about the virtuous (middle-class) mother, which is a thinly-veiled strategy for convincing women to continue shouldering the burden of caring for the world so that men, the private sector, and governments don’t have to.