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Measuring the Work of Mothering
Your stories about measuring the worth of care work
For new readers, Other Feminisms usually has two posts a week: an essay from me, and a round up of reader responses to a previous essay. I’m very grateful for the commenting community here. The best part of substack is having a sustained conversation with people who don’t agree on everything, but know that the world doesn’t make enough space for women as women.
If you’re new to Other Feminisms and you’d like one piece to read on what animates this newsletter, I’d recommend my essay “Dependence” for Plough. This week, I’m sharing reader responses to an essay on how we measure the cost of care work, particularly breastfeeding.
I was struck by Alyssa Rosenberg’s reporting on the cost of breastfeeding (complete with her own charts from nursing her child). Her excellent work prompted a good discussion on how to make care work visible, and why many of us are uncomfortable with justifying its value by translating it into monetary costs.
Rita wrote a little about her discomfort with discussing nursing as a way women fall behind:
I find these accountings miss the fact that... babies are people, and people need to eat. Why not also just count up the time feeding yourself rather than working? If I look at the time I spend making only breakfast, lunch and dinner for myself (not counting time spent making it for my children), it is also an absurdly large amount of time. Very inefficient! Very costly! But it is an "acceptable" cost because everyone takes it for granted that adults need to eat.
I am an attorney who bills in 6-minute increments and makes more money if I bill more hours, so I am in one of the few jobs where I could, in reality, directly replace any activity with time spent working just like in the economic hypotheticals, and believe me, I have considered eating only Soylent and protein bars because eating takes too long sometimes—but outside of tech bro and surgical resident culture, very few people would consider that a reasonable solution because we take much more seriously the needs of adult people than the needs of baby people. (Although we fall short in considering the needs of adults too, as Leah and this community have often identified).
There have been times in my life when it’s been really helpful to think about putting a cost on my time, in order to make a specific choice, but I’d hate to have a meter running in the back of my head during my normal life. I don’t want the costs of care work dismissed, but I resent translating the value of nursing a baby into terms that don’t actually reflect what I value about caring for my child.
Midge had a great reply to a conversation in a thread:
I get what you're saying with, “Children take away from your ‘ability to be productive’ in just about every profession, and that's just a fact regardless of what culture you're in. I don't think you can get around that. BUT—Children take away from your status/society value/etc only in cultures (like ours) that see your value as coming primarily from productivity. Children do not take away from your status/societal value if your culture recognizes as valuable things beyond productivity.”
But losing productivity in "just about every profession" is not the same thing as losing total individual productivity. Childcare is productive work, even if you're not paid for it. It's just not recognized as productive work—by most people—unless you're paid for it. Oddly enough, economists are some of the best at recognizing that unpaid work within the household is “productive.” But economists' brains are weird: many of them are truly bad at seeing that there are bourgeois (even “free market!”) notions of "productivity" that are more about status than, y'know, literally about productivity. I know because I'm married to one.
Everyone benefits from work outside of a job being valued, and women benefit more than most. That doesn’t mean that work-at-work isn’t also valuable; we need to be attentive to the barriers that make it harder for women.
But all of us spend seasons of our life outside a conventional job, whether because of children, illness, unemployment, or choice. It’s good to recognize how we can be good stewards of whatever is within our power. It’s attentiveness to home, to neighborhood, to local need that helps us create community.
Amy responded to a different concern. Are women in a double bind, where our care work is written off if it’s not quantified, but where, if you do reckon the cost, it winds up being too heavy and becomes an excuse to not include us?
Leah, your language around "if women carry heavier burdens as parents, admitting them gives employers an excuse to prefer men" hits the nail on the head. But if I were to pitch paid leave to my current employer, my pitch would be that ANYONE who experiences an FMLA qualifying event would be eligible for 6 weeks paid leave. I admit I prefer this framing because it prevents paid leave from being perceived as only needed by women of childbearing age, when in reality anyone of any age might need it to care for or mourn a family member. But do you think this framing neglects the unique needs and expectations of caregiving that are placed on women? (Asking seriously, if I ever get a chance to make this pitch I would want it to be vetted beforehand!)
I was considering this exact question this year when I worked with Families Valued to develop a paid leave proposal. We ultimately took a gender-neutral approach, making the following two recommendations:
Establish a universal paid benefit for new parents and end-of-life caregivers. The federal government should offer a significant cash benefit payable to new parents, enabling at least 12 weeks of dedicated caregiving. Similarly, a universal, time-limited benefit should be available for other distinct types of care responsibilities, such as end-of-life hospice care.
Guarantee at least two weeks, annually, of paid medical and caregiving leave for all who work. The federal government should establish a labor-force-wide minimum paid time off standard that reaches all workers and is flexible enough to handle a variety of personal medical needs and care for anyone considered kin.
There are more details in the full report, but we decided to start with the assumption that anyone can be called on to care for others, and put a big emphasis on the range of people you might care for (friends as well as family).
It’s hard, though, because sometimes when generous benefits are extended in a gender neutral way, the men benefit more. A study of a gender-neutral parental benefit policy that paused the tenure clock for econ professors found that it exacerbated the gender gap, since men were able to use the extra time for work, while women needed more of their leave for caregiving.
Mary offered a way to weigh worth without dollar signs.
What makes the work of others visible to me is when I do some of it. […] I would also encourage volunteer / part-time work that is care work, whether it's caring for children, elderly people, people with illnesses, homeless people, or whoever. Many adults (not all!) are able to put aside an evening a week or a few hours on Saturday to volunteer, and for teenagers, care work doesn't build a resume any less than park maintenance or working at a restaurant. I don't think everyone can make it work at every stage in their life, but I think a lot more people can than do. Experience (even if it's just dabbling) opens your eyes to other parts of the world more than just hearing/reading about it. People say that about traveling, and it's true of your elderly neighbor as well. Go pick some flowers and say hello.
She’s right. It makes a big difference to experience the work other do from within. I’ve spent the last week taking on some of the tasks my husband does as he recovers from a sprained ankle. There’s a big difference between feeling generally appreciative for what he does and actually taking on the burdens he carries. He’s had the same experience when I’ve been sick or just very tired from nighttime nursing.
Finally, Alyssa Rosenberg, whose reporting kicked off this conversation, has a new piece that I think will be of interest to both pro-choice and pro-life readers here. Her piece is about where pro-choice people can work to make life better for the babies who will be born because of abortion restrictions and how to best help their parents.