Paid vs. Unpaid Work
My husband and I like to compare the work of the home (and all work, really) to the meaninglessness portrayed in Ecclesiastes. When we pick up toys at the end of the day, knowing full well that they will be strewn about by toddlers in the morning, we stare at each other and say, “This, too, is chasing after the wind!” (see Eccles. 1:14). Don’t you feel that way sometimes? The writer of Ecclesiastes knew this frustration well. He captures the feelings we all face when work is not all it is cracked up to be.
One contributing factor to our disillusionment with at-home work is that we aren’t paid for it. The work of the home used to be viewed as contributive work. Although the father might bring in income, the income was collective and for the entire family unit. The mother’s work (and even the children’s work) was seen as providing a way for the family unit to thrive. The father may have been a farmer or, post–Industrial Revolution, a factory worker, but all members of the family did their part to work. At times, the mother also provided income with her cooking, sewing, and homemaking skills. When work moved out of the home and into the marketplace, compensation became the driving marker of the value of work. The housewife of the 1950s was marked by the fact that she could afford to not make any money—not making money was a status symbol. To be able to stay home meant her husband made enough money for the both of them. Fast forward to our present day, and we are now defined by our salaries. The more money we make, the more successful we are perceived to be.
Julia, a part-time financial consultant with two small children, observes how the unique culture of New York City assigns an improper amount of dignity and worth to at-home work. Where she lives, a lot of the work of the home can be outsourced. For eighty dollars a week, Julia pays someone to clean her two-bedroom apartment and wash and fold the household laundry. You can also hire someone to cook your meals for as little as one hundred and thirty dollars a week,1 and groceries can be delivered straight to your apartment, sometimes even same-day for no additional cost.2 Additionally, nannies are a common choice for childcare. In the business world, companies outsource certain jobs to save money in order to spend it on more valuable products and employees. Companies want the most return on their investment, so they spend less time and money on the tasks that will bring in less of a return or are considered not as highly skilled. We do the same thing when we outsource the work of the home. If it can be done cheaply or is too mundane, we are left with more money or time to spend on the things we value most. We have brought a business mind-set into the home. In our marketplace-driven society, where each job is assigned a monetary value, and especially in the financial-driven culture of New York City, Julia admits that there is a temptation to correlate the monetary compensation of a job to the dignity or worth of the job. How then might this correlation influence our attitudes toward those who stay home with their children and do the bulk of at-home work?
Of course, a variety of circumstances can lead us to use these services. This is not a commentary or judgment on the morality of having someone clean your home or having a nanny. But even for those who do take advantage of the opportunity, at the end of the day, the prominence of such services in our culture has shaped the way we think about at-home work and made it less valuable in our eyes.
It doesn’t help that we have a string of television shows that only perpetuate the stereotype, from the Real Housewives franchise to The Mindy Project. At least in the case of The Mindy Project, the main character (Mindy) realizes that at-home work really is harder than we make it seem. And so does her fiancé (who, after thinking he could handle the work better than she did, realizes that it’s hard work). But even with television shows attempting to crack stereotypes, some say that cultural ideas about at-home work have never been lower. Writing for The Atlantic, Wednesday Martin says:
Sure, today’s college-educated women have a degree of autonomy and self-determination that [Nora] Johnson and her peers only dreamed of, and that required an entire second wave of feminism to engineer, through consciousness raising, lawsuits, and legislation. Thanks to Title IX, they played sports that were off limits to a previous generation. Now, as middle- and upper-income women who stay home with kids they have recourse to no-fault divorce, laws protecting them from workplace discrimination, and access to birth control and abortion.
The educated woman who stays home now may face a measure of not only the longing and lack of fulfillment that Johnson and [Betty] Friedan articulated, but also the awkward silence and turning away at a cocktail party—the lack of interest when she says she is a stay-at-home mother. She is in for a heaping helping of something relatively new: widespread cultural contempt.3
As Tim Keller says, our current culture’s value on “knowledge” jobs (jobs where the main job requirement is the knowledge you bring to the job) also contributes to the devaluing of at-home work.4 Even if you aren’t a stay-at-home mom, nannies and housekeepers are not considered the most valuable contributors to a growing and cultured society.
We are all working together for the good of our family, sometimes for compensation and sometimes not.
This goes back to the outsourcing idea. How do you feel about the factory worker in China who is making your electronics for you? Or the call center representative who is answering your call for technical support? To my shame, I can honestly say I don’t think much of them. Work that is outsourced is viewed as expendable and the people more so. Our current mind-set is that if you aren’t being compensated for your work, or if you aren’t doing something that requires you to use your brain in the ways our society deems significant, the work is not truly work. This idea is nothing new. The ancient Greeks placed great value on the mind, while the body and material world were for people of lesser value. Keller says that “work was a barrier to the highest kind of life” to the Greeks and that “the Greeks understood that life in the world required work, but they believed that not all work was created equal.”5 This same sort of ideology was prevalent during the Reformation, too. The cloistered life, where one prayed, studied, and served God in solitude, was of great spiritual value. Ordinary laborers were a lower class of people. While it might seem that we are in a new frontier regarding how we value (and devalue) work, we are simply continuing the cycle that has been spinning for centuries. It just has new packaging.
But if the work of the home is still needed (and who doesn’t need clean underwear, dinner every night, and well-adjusted children?), how do we quantify it if it no longer falls under income earned and a paycheck deposited? Every so often, a major media outlet reports on how much money a stay-at-home mom would actually earn if she we were paid for her work and hours on the job. In 2011, Forbes reported that stay-at-home moms should be paid $115,000 a year for the work they do because it comprises so many different jobs.6 But I think these conversations are misplaced, because they reflect our view of the home as being a place of consumption rather than a place of productivity. When productivity and work moved outside of the home, income became personal and not collective. But a recovery of seeing the home as a place for the family’s productivity, and as part of the common good of society, helps reorient our perspective on the pay for at-home work, along with our purpose in our work. Even if you outsource some of the at-home work, you can still appreciate and value the work being done by seeing it as part of the all-encompassing purpose of the home.
One way my husband and I try to combat the tendency to pit one work against the other is by not making a distinction between at-home work and work outside of the home. When someone asks where I work, we say, “The home.” While I bring in some money through writing projects, he is the primary wage earner. But we view my work at home as a vital contribution, even if I never receive a paycheck for it. We have one family income, and we all do our part to help our family thrive. And while I am the primary parent at home, he also contributes to the overall work of the home in a variety of ways. We are all working together for the good of our family, sometimes for compensation and sometimes not. There is a lot of give-and-take for both of us, even if the work in the home isn’t split fifty-fifty. Regardless, all of our work has value. In some small way, we hope our perspective on the collective income moves us toward the recovery of the notion that our home should be a place of productivity, rather than endless amounts of consumption.
We hope to model for our children, and those around us, that everyone in our family is working because that is what we were made for. And all of our work matters.
It’s not just in how you talk with your spouse about at-home work that can contribute to how you and I value the work. Our children are listening and watching how we value the work of the home as well. In an effort to teach her children that work is contribution, including at-home work, author Jen Wilkin and her husband were intentional about how they assigned chores and compensated (or didn’t compensate) for them, with this end goal in mind:
As those whose work is ultimately done for the glory of God, we ask, “How much can I contribute?” before we concern ourselves with “How much will I receive?” Think how differently the world would function if everyone regarded work through this lens.
This is why in our home we didn’t tie allowance (compensation) to chores (work). Instead, we explained to the kids that their contributions to the upkeep of domestic order were absolutely essential. We were not merely trying to train them to obey or to be responsible, we actually needed them to share the burden of work for our family to flourish.7
I’m not saying that giving allowances is wrong. And I’m not saying that compensation in the marketplace does not matter. In my effort to bring value to the unpaid work of the home, I don’t want to diminish the need to pay people a fair wage for the work they do. But it is important for us to see work as a contribution, and not always with a dollar sign attached to it. We must walk a fine line between valuing unpaid work and providing people with the compensation they deserve for their work.
- Nate Green, “How to Get a Cheap Private Chef,” http://www.thenate greenexperience.com/how-to-get-a-cheap-private-chef/, accessed April 7, 2016.
- Anne Kadet, “New York City’s Grocery Delivery Wars: Who’s the Winner?,” The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2015, http://www.wsj .com/articles/new-york-citys-grocery-delivery-wars-whos-the-winner -1423250707
- Wednesday Martin, “The Captivity of Motherhood,” The Atlantic, July 15, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015 /07/the-captivity-of-motherhood/398525/.
- Keller, Every Good Endeavor, 49.
- Ibid., 46.
- Jenna Goudreau, “Why Stay-at-Home Moms Should Earn a $115,000 Salary,” Forbes, May 2, 2011, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jenna
- Jen Wilkin, “FAQ: Should I Pay an Allowance for Chores?,” The Beginning of Wisdom (blog), April 16, 2015, http://jenwilkin.blogspot .com/2015/04/faq-should-i-pay-allowance-for-chores.html/.
This article is adapted from Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God by Courtney Reissig.
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