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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 18-Nov-14 10:31:17

Guest post: 'The cost of women's caring work is immeasurable'

Following the Office for National Statistics' announcement that they will calculate the economic contribution of unpaid, domestic work, Victoria Smith argues that the physical and emotional labour society demands of women cannot be measured in these terms

Victoria Smith


Posted on: Tue 18-Nov-14 10:31:17


Lead photo

'We're not cleaners, teachers, nurses, nannies, therapists rolled into one; some of the time, we're just there'

The Office for National Statistics is launching a study to calculate the value of unpaid work. For women, who make up the majority of unpaid workers, such a thing is long overdue. Nevertheless, I wonder how it will work in practice. How do we put a price on what we do for our nearest and dearest? And when is a job really a job – and when is it just a matter of personal standards?

The study will be using “the market cost of paying someone to perform the household chore”. This sounds straightforward, but it assumes that the only alternative to paying someone to do a task is doing it yourself. For many of the tasks mentioned, such as ironing, vacuuming and cleaning, I happen to know of a third alternative: just not doing it at all. Rather than “employing myself” as my family's unpaid maid, I've opted for us wearing crumpled clothes and living in a filthy house. It’s not something I'm particularly proud of – I don't have a secret collection of those “boring people have tidy homes” fridge magnets – but the truth is, there are things I'd rather do once I've finished work and put the kids to bed (such as sit here, in a dust-and-toy-strewn living room, blogging about how useless I am at keeping things clean).

But does this mean I'm failing to prove my worth? Perhaps, if one applied the thinking of the average management consultant, it would turn out I'm actually more efficient than the average housewife/husband. I've done away with all the superfluous roles and am running the ultimate streamlined, competitive organisation. This household is fully focussed on just a few key roles: cooking, washing up, laundry, the odd squirt of Mr Muscle Shower Shine, and the twice-yearly mad cleaning panic whenever my mum's coming to visit. There may be further efficiencies to achieve (perhaps I could keep my visiting mum confined to one room only?) but thus far we're meeting all our immune system targets and the iron hasn't been used in months. Of course, it's been sad to let Mr Sheen and Barry Scott go, but there just haven't been any suitable vacancies in the organisation.

We need to position caregiving at the centre of all our lives; it is not just an alternative job. The fact that something so important has been treated as worthless ought to make us question our priorities overall.

Clearly I'm being flippant (although my house is a tip), and what I haven't yet mentioned is the hardest “household” task of all: that of being a carer. Not doing the ironing is one thing; neglecting children and/or sick and elderly relatives is quite another. The cost of women's caring work is, I think, immeasurable, and I find it strange to see it lumped together with more general household tasks, many of which I'd instantly shove into the category “can't be arsed”. I don't think caring works like that. Indeed, it's hard to describe how it does work within our current system of rewarding labour, and I doubt the ONS survey will be able to capture this.

There is a type of physical and emotional labour that we demand of women in particular which can't be shoehorned into our current frameworks. There's no clear way of breaking down what women do for others within a domestic setting. We're not cleaners, teachers, nurses, nannies, therapists rolled into one; some of the time, we're just there. To put a price on the work of parents and/or carers is to disregard the hardest part of what they do. What would be the market value of this level of commitment? How could you ever describe it?

Mothers At Home Matter argue that “there has never been, in the history of time, any ‘cost-free’ childcare for any family”. This is, sort of, true. There have, however, always been designated carers upon whom to depend: slaves, working-class women and women in general, and our systems of reward have been based on the assumption that such people will simply do what's necessary without the need for any great recompense. A route out of this could be to re-examine the monetary value of caring, but another might be to look at the human cost and to try to see how a truly fair, humane society would approach the carer role. The academic Nancy Fraser proposes that rather than “elevating caregiving to breadwinning” through financial allowances (in order to create a type of artificial parity between the two), feminists should be pushing for a “universal caregiver model […] which would induce men to become more like women are now: people who combine employment with primary caregiving responsibilities”. We need to position caregiving at the centre of all our lives; it is not just an alternative job. The fact that something so important has been treated as worthless ought to make us question our priorities overall.

I hope the ONS calculation does make people realise the degree to which unpaid workers, and carers in particular, support the economy. I hope, too, that this is understood in gendered terms (reporting in The Times and The Telegraph has thus far been resistant to this, focusing on the more unusual example of a heterosexual couple in which the man does the majority of unpaid work). In the long term, however, I think we need to move beyond seeing the workplace as the default setting for “doing any activity that is of value”. It's not possible to measure everything. If we were truly committed to sharing our resources – our time, our labour, our compassion – we wouldn't even need to try.

By Victoria Smith

Twitter: @glosswitch

cailindana Tue 18-Nov-14 15:07:52

I agree that the importance of "just being there" is totally underestimated. Our long hours culture is built on the assumption that even if a person has children they will still be able to work very late, go on trips abroad, work extra days etc. Of course, in practice what this means is that the woman is at home picking up all the slack while the man is able to jump to every (unreasonable) demand made of him by his job. Without that stable person, always there, always available men would have had to say long ago, "sorry I have to pick the children up," or "no, I'm afraid I can't go to Paris for three days, I have children to look after." The freedom and support given to a working parent by the stay at home parent is massively underrated.

The underestimation of the importance of "just being there" also contributes IMO to the idea that it is not enough for a stay at home parent to attend to the needs of children, they must also do all the housework, volunteer, do all the thinking and organising for both children and spouse and generally be responsible for all the day to day running of the life of the family. I have often seen threads where mums (and it's always mums) talk about "running around like a blue arsed fly trying to get everything done while the baby's asleep." There's a sense that if the baby's asleep they're doing nothing and so must fill that time with useful work, when in fact it's absolutely essential that they're there while the baby is napping and just sitting down and having a break for an hour is a pretty normal thing to do in the middle of the working day. Even when the baby's awake, there's a very strong message that the caring work a baby demands can be done with no effort, so that jobs like washing, cooking, cleaning etc can all be done easily. But simply caring for a small child, particularly for a baby, is a very time consuming task. You might not be doing something every minute of the day - you might even get to sit down for five minutes and drink a cup of tea - but part of what's tiring is that need to "be there" - the fact that you can't just walk out the door and do something else for an hour. Being that reliable, stable, constant carer is very very hard, and something that is hard to appreciate if you've never actually done it.

It seems to me that that underestimation of the importance of being there has bled into caring jobs like nursing, midwifery, social work, teaching etc. With tick boxes and targets comes a total lack of recognition that sometimes what you need is not a measurable outcome but just someone there, someone with expertise who can keep an eye on the situation and be there if things go wrong. The idea that nurses, in particularly, should always be carrying out some sort of task totally misses the importance of having a moment to smile at someone, to ask how they are, to have a quick double check of that patient who seemed a bit off earlier, to chase up those tests for someone who's particularly anxious. They might look like they're not doing anything, and they might have nothing to tick off from their list, but they are displaying excellent practice by responding to that immediate moment, by being there, available to deal with what comes up at that time even if it doesn't exactly fit protocol.

EmGee Tue 18-Nov-14 16:20:50

Excellent post Cailindana. Sums up my thoughts exactly. I am a SAHM whose husband works incredibly long hours, goes on business trips regularly, works late, sometimes has to catch up (at home) on office work at weekends. I know I am in the fortunate position, at the moment, of not needing to go back to work for financial reasons so I can stay at home. It does however mean that all things household related are my responsibility. Apart from when my children were little babies (when I did indeed run round like a blue-arses fly), I do make sure I perch my derriere comfortably on the sofa and read/watch iplayer/surf the net/make a phone call etc when my youngest has her nap after lunch. Keeps me sane!

Also agree with your comment re nursing. My mum was a nurse and she also felt latterly that the 'care' had gone out of the profession e.g. not being able just to sit and have a quick chat with patients on the ward, double-check on someone, remember to go back and see if Mrs X or whoever is ready to go to the toilet etc.

Sonnet Tue 18-Nov-14 20:01:12

What about those of us with 2 jobs - paid out of the home employment and unpaid in the home?

My career has taken a back seat as I have been the one to run the home, support DH whilst also juggling a stressful job (but unable to reach the dizzy heights and receive appropriate payment as I am unable to focus on it exclusively)

Love the bit where you say that we need to move beyond seeing the workplace as the default setting for doing any activity that is of value Victoria

Also of course caring is more important than getting the ironing done

Thirdly the value of something is not the same as the cost. Even in my work with early years (sorry to mention WOTH!) it's been shown that for every �1 put in to resources about �7 is saved down the line due to better outcomes for children as they grow up

I'm sure similar statistics apply to much other caring work often done by women

Bonsoir Tue 18-Nov-14 20:33:22

I loved your post, cailindana. Excellent.

morethanpotatoprints Tue 18-Nov-14 20:54:00

I agree with everything that has been said, wow.

I gave up my career to care for/just be there for my family too, all of them.
It's hard to explain what you actually do when you are just there.
"Being there" for 23 years has taken up most of my time, do I feel that this has been recognised and value attached, most definitely.
Would I do it again, yes without a doubt.
The only value comes from my family though, including mil grin

alpacasosoft Tue 18-Nov-14 21:06:04

I don't think you have to give up a career morethan I didn't because I had a DH who also valued time at home and so we looked after our family together
Women give up careers because they have partners who just will not accept any caring role and are selfish.
Luckily for me my DH enjoyed being at home as much as being at work and so when he was at home I could work knowing my DC were cared for as I wanted.
Mind blowing- a man who also cared for his DC as much as I did.
The end result is very happy DC and we both have careers

Oscarandelliesmum Tue 18-Nov-14 21:08:10

Well said Calindana.

morethanpotatoprints Tue 18-Nov-14 21:36:32


I wanted to give up my career and feel more valued had I kept it, both me and dh shared the opinion of a sahp.
Dh shares caring and domestic role with me as do the family.
They also give up careers because they don't want that anymore.

morethanpotatoprints Tue 18-Nov-14 21:38:15

Meant to say, its good there are more of us who have choices now.
It would be much fairer if we all had free choice.

jellybeans Tue 18-Nov-14 21:50:15

Don't make assumptions about all SAHM's partners, all families are different alpacasosoft Women give up careers because they have partners who just will not accept any caring role and are selfish

-some partners work away or shifts/on call
-some women CHOOSE and want to give up careers (they may see them as overrated) looks like morethan and I may be in this category.
-many working partners of SAHM do equal caring/house stuff when at home
-it just works out better for some families to have a parent at home, sometimes this is the Dad- there are 3 SAHD's in DS3's class, are their partners selfish too? You know what? maybe it just works for them..
-not everyone has a 9-5 job or grandparents doing shed loads of free childcare, not everyone wants to use paid childcare
-some people are happyonc thy have enough moneyto live on so use their time to enhance their families lives and often also help in the community

Your assumption is simplistic and incorrect.

morethanpotatoprints Tue 18-Nov-14 23:39:23

Our household wouldn't function the way it is if I wasn't just here, doing what I do.
It's nothing special and certainly can't be measured nor defined.

What do you do?
Well, I'm just here, just me.
You can list jobs/chores that you do but that's not being there, that's doing jobs.

winterland Wed 19-Nov-14 05:58:28

Great post C. And an interesting article. Be interested to know what the figure is that the ons come up with. It must be quite subjective as parents/mothers have different standards of parenting and home keeping?

Bowchickawowow Wed 19-Nov-14 07:13:46

I think there is a difference between being a "carer" and being a parent though. If you are caring for an elderly parent, for example, that is a very different dynamic and that has an economic impact in a way that looking after your own children doesn't.

RedButtonhole Wed 19-Nov-14 07:15:40

Perfect post Callindana.

I recently gave up my job to study and it has been implied by many of my friends that "I get to sit on my arse at home half the week". Except that when I'm at home I'm doing everything that needs done in the house, picking up my son and caring for him, all the things that have been mentioned. I do all of it without any support from a partner or non-resident parent and it's quite upsetting that because I'm not currently in paid work, I seem to have become worthless to society.

JaneAHersey Wed 19-Nov-14 08:04:43

Sorry, but this is a cynical attempt by the government to use the ONS as an election tool.

The ONS would be better placed to carry out research on the thousands of women suffering domestic violence and have lost the right to legal aid.

Last year the government allowed local authorities to assess young carers contribution financially. Bearing in mind that the work of a young carer involves domestic chores, emotional support, personal care etc. However, cuts to local authorities, cuts to disability benefits and the bedroom tax all mean that child/young carers are plunged deeper into poverty, stress and lifelong trauma. Many children are now having to help care for elderly relatives with eg dementia because of health and social care cuts.

68% of informal carers suffer anxiety and depression. Many have had to give up work as a result of their caring role and are in debt. Informal carers save the government £119 billion a year.

We know the cost of caring is immeasurable and can also devastate the lives of carers, physically, emotionally and financially that is why we need a government and society that values the role of all carers.

DeccaMitford Wed 19-Nov-14 08:17:08

This is such an excellent piece, enhanced by the wonderful 1st comment by Cailindana

It sums up many of my feelings about why I WANTED to be a SAHM and why I valued my mum being a SAHM mum while I was little. Just being there, on alert all day, is hard work but so worth it and rewarding in the long run. It's 'value' may be immeasurable and this piece has reminded me of that on a tough day when I've been running around like mad and feeling guilty that I might not be doing enough. How terrible it was that I sat with a purring cat on my lap for an hour while I did internet shopping after dropping my son at nursery (!)

Redbuttonhole with friends like that you don't need enemies! Luckily my friends, especially my NCT friends, know how hard it is and frequently remind me of the fact when I'm doubting it in myself, as does my husband. I've always been my own toughest critic and I think the echo of 'society's expectations' in my head has a lot to do with that. But society's opinions are not always right and change over time, so I think it's important to do what you want to do and try to ignore that nagging voice, whether it comes from within or from your 'friends'.

skolastica Wed 19-Nov-14 08:59:14

I don't think that we can ever overvalue caring and nurturing.

My stance is that if the caring and nurturing is done properly, then there will be less need for psychotherapists, prisons, charities and benefits and any other of the 'professions' that need to exist to support dysfunctional adults.

Those who do a good job of caring contribute massively to society by reducing costs further down the line.

KERALA1 Wed 19-Nov-14 09:15:36

I remember reading the comparison that if a person leaves a job there is minimal impact, you can get another job no one is particularly affected or really cares, outwit the individual. However if a mother (or father if primary caregiver) just left a family with young children the effect would ripple down through generations. Put it in perspective for me somehow.

stillstandingatthebusstop Wed 19-Nov-14 09:21:32

I have a son with learning difficulties and as a result of needing to care for him and push and encourage him to be the best person he can be I have given up my career and I have a very part time, very low paid job.

One thing that annoys me is the way I am treated by a lot of professionals that work with my son. They assume that I am an idiot and often that I am part of the problem because I am his carer. At the moment the main thing I do is to care for my son but this doesn't mean that my views are less important. I was a professional, I have a degree (if that's relevant), I know my son's current needs and I remember what has happened in the past which can give a useful insight into strategies that might/won't work this time. I am fed up of being talked down to.

sewingmummy Wed 19-Nov-14 11:01:11

This is such an important topic, really enjoying reading the post and the comments. This is something that is very close to my heart as a SAHM for the past 5 years. My self-esteem has been at rock-bottom at times due to feeling useless because I don't work. I love the ethos behind Mothers at Home Matter & follow them on Twitter and was a member for a time. I found one of their leaflets in the GP surgery back in 2013 & it was almost as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders...I've kept the leaflet & still read it from time to time, especially this bit:

"Mothers at home do matter.
What they do matters enormously.
Because much of their work is invisible it is all too easy to downplay their crucial role in the home and in society at large.'

I've had judgements about being a SAHM from friends, family members & even people I hardly know. I'm fed up of it.

I was listening to Radio 4 recently and Sandi Toksvig was talking about childcare issues and said that basically as women we can never get it right...if you don't have children you're seen as heartless & unloving, if you work & have children you're seen as selfish and if you stay at home with your children, you're seen as lazy.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't....

BatterseaGirl Wed 19-Nov-14 12:06:15

The problem is that traditional work is rewarded with money and it is not calculated according to the social value that the job has. Look at the jobs that have the most social value - nurses, doctors, teachers, refuse collectors, street cleaners etc. compared to those jobs which I would say have least social value - film stars, celebrities, tax advisors etc. and see who gets rewarded the most. The social value of women's work I would say is pretty much near the top of the list but as economic contribution doesn't work according to social value it won't be that high.

RedButtonhole Wed 19-Nov-14 13:10:04

Thanks Decca I try not to let it get to me too
much, there's no way that it would put me off pursuing a career that I'm really passionate about and that will enable me to really help people when I get a job at the end of it. I'm studying to become a nurse, maybe they'll change their attitudes if they need to rely on me for care one day.

morethanpotatoprints Wed 19-Nov-14 14:00:41

Its also important to remember that some people thrive on being there.
Just doing things for the family, making sure the day runs smoothly, managing the home and the people within it.
By that I don't mean doing everything for them but helping and assisting, nurturing and educating.
I think society has it wrong at times but tend not to listen to those who have negative or judgemental comments about what I choose to do, they aren't me or my family, they don't know my family and how we work.

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