When is a job a “real” job?
Over the past three years I have had cause to think deeply about this question, as I have undertaken different roles and have consciously and deliberately reflected on my choices: full-time stay at home mother; part-time child care worker; and more recently part-time office worker. What has struck me as intriguing, and altogether disconcerting, are the vastly different perceptions accorded each role, many of them disparaging. Perceptions accorded by close family, some friends, and – to my dismay – myself.
If I use my three years of employment experience as a litmus test of attitude, the results reflect poorly on societal priorities. They expose which of these societal values have been embedded and entrenched within my own walls, begging the question: how did they get in? My experiment has brought to the fore concepts of legitimacy and identity: economic, social, and personal, exposing for me some disappointing truths.
But let me start from the beginning.
As a full-time stay at home mother, I deliberately engaged with a household model seemingly at odds with my feminist instincts. I ventured with hope that this era should enable women to make conscious choices without fear of judgement, branding my decision a feminist take on a fifties formula. In my eyes it was a deliberate reclaiming of an identity hitherto thrust upon married women with children: my husband became the “breadwinner” and I the “homemaker”. I devised an interpretation of this to include everything to do with the children and the house. A probing question at the time from a close and respected friend raised an early doubt: why should the parameter encompass all the housework? Her educated and yet it seems rarely held view was that raising the children and attending to their needs represented a hefty enough load and the maintenance of the house and associated chores should be shared. I conceded that, whilst this arrangement might work in some partnerships, the strict delineation of responsibility between inside the house work and outside the house work was the one that would most likely work for us. My model was thenceforth consciously constructed.
And so what of my time “inside the house”?
For me, being at home full time with my boys was an era pockmarked by extremes. Highs of heart pulling delirium book-ended by lows of visceral emotion. I struggled with being economically dependent for the first time in twenty years. I grappled with an inner dialogue which erred on the side of devil’s advocate and complained that I was taken for granted. I questioned why I was not fulfilled by this work: was being there for my family and keeping the house afloat not enough, and if not, what else was needed? Was it money? Was it recognition? Did I have ambitions and desires that were hitherto unknown to me?
By the end of my time at home, heart pulling highs not withstanding, the core of me felt crushed. I no longer knew what made me truly happy. I had lost sight of the elements needed for growth and fulfillment. I can reason that endless giving amounts to goodness, and am grateful for the opportunity to have been there so much for my boys, but giving without gratitude is damn hard. And I am not a saint.
Re-training and working in childcare buoyed my flagging esteem. I had achieved something tangible. I became helpful for other people. I was contributing to something beyond the well-being of my little family, with a daily purpose aside from my assumed obligations. I reveled in the interactions with children and rejoiced at our growing bonds (to be hugged upon arrival at work by a child genuinely happy to see you is a wondrous thing). I marveled at how profound a duty it was to feed another woman’s baby. To see a dozen toddlers safely to sleep when I struggled with my own three.
And yet, this step outside the home seemed flawed. Even before I started I was asked why I would want to work in childcare: “Haven’t you had enough of children?” “Isn’t that what you’re already doing at home anyway?” I was able to deflect these doubters by convincing them my love of children was motivation enough. But the question which stuck fast was the most brutal: “Childcare? Isn’t that sort of beneath you?” Why, because I have a university degree? Because I grew up in the eastern suburbs? Because I am relatively articulate? If caring for other people’s children is “beneath” somebody like me, then who is it suited to? What has led us to think that the role of caring for children is best left to the uneducated and inarticulate; the battlers who have limited opportunity? Why is childcare not seen as a legitimate profession?
These questions were compounded when an unexpected opportunity arose for a job in my old digs and to my third incarnation in as many years: part-time office work. Back to where I started ten years ago. Before children. Back to wearing makeup and heels and jewellery and carrying manilla folders and attending workshops and sitting in front of a computer drinking proper coffee and having meetings and giving presentations and feeling… important. More important than when feeding someone else’s baby? Yes and no. To me, there is no more profound a feeling than seeing to the needs of another mother’s child when she cannot. I certainly felt that importance. But somehow the clip-clop of my heels as I stride down the corridor to a meeting with a Professor makes me feel… legitimate. There is no other word for it. But why this legitimacy? Is it the heels, the makeup, the jewellery, the computer, the coffee, the meetings, the presentations, or the Professor?
Of course the elephant in the room is glaringly obvious: it’s the money.
Our society attributes status in monetary degrees. The more you earn, the more important you are irrespective of your career output. If sitting in a room staring at the ceiling earned me a billion dollars I’d be incredibly important. Society has deemed caring – for the young, the elderly, the disabled – not economically valuable. It may be valuable to the functioning of society, and token acknowledgement would be paid to same. But what our society really values is money.
These observations might be obvious, but what was not obvious to me was that these societal values have crept in to my own values system. My feeling of legitimacy and importance as I clip-clop down the corridor in my makeup and jewellery is attributable to the fact that I am now earning more money. Four weeks ago I was feeling the profound importance of seeing to the needs of children, and yet still struggled to pay the bills. This week I spent $100 on a bottle of perfume for myself and felt a sense of satisfaction I have not felt for years. I earned the money that enabled me to buy the perfume. I was able to treat myself and it felt good.
So my conclusions from this three year experiment? That working outside the home is good for me. That I do seek and require external legitimization. That having things to think about other than my family is healthy for my brain. That earning enough money to enable me to buy myself indulgent luxuries feels good.
But most of all I’ve learned that as a society we have got it all wrong. We should be paying carers millions and miners minimum wage. It pains me to conclude that I have bought into this status system and that I feel more self worth now that I am earning more money. This has come as a genuine shock and I wish it weren’t so. But I have to be honest with myself. I don’t think I’m materialistic, but I do like the odd luxury. I think most of us do. It’s damn hard to buck the system. And we are none of us saints.