Monday, 29 April 2013

the reserve army of labour

I'm a Mummy Blogger, and a Full Time Mummy, but long ago, like lots of other Mummies, I went to University.  Can you guess what I studied?  Apart from drinking?

For my BA I did Applied Social Sciences and Women's Studies.  It was a great course.  Really interesting, but a little bit practical too.  I don't know exactly what you're supposed to do with it, but I reckon there are lots of things.  I've found it really useful for doing sociological research, running a charitable organisation, and for being a Mummy, so far.  

One of the things we learned in Women's Studies was that in times of financial difficulty, or constriction of empolyment opportunities, women form a reserve army of labour (it's marxist feminism/feminist marxism people!).  Their work is needed in boom times, or when the men go away to war, but when it's not needed any more then they're pushed out of the workplace, and pulled into the home.  Previously this has been done with sexist legislation, like not allowing married women to work, for example, or ensuring that men's pay was higher than women's, but now we're not allowed to be so overt about it.  And yet everything I hear seems to indicate that it's happening again, now, in these times of hardship.  So how is the push being accomplished this time?  I'm not sure that it's something that one would notice on an individual basis, but the fact that there's so much of it going on, means it's worth having a look at, right?
Full time mothering seaside town style

Let's start with a case study:  Me.

When I first had a child I was intending on going back to work after my maternity leave, but then the reality of motherhood hit.  Nobody could love him like Kenny and I, so we felt that we were best placed to care for him.  At that point I was the main earner, and Kenny wasn't making the most of his skills in his job.  We knew we wanted more children, and I'd already been bumped for a promised promotion after I'd revealed my pregnancy. I'd looked around me at work too.  There were no mothers in my team, there was no workplace creche, and there was a culture of long hours which wouldn't work if I wanted to see my children.  When we saw a job Kenny could do which would be a great career opportunity for him, but would mean I couldn't go back to work, we decided it would be best for our family to focus on his career.  

Now we're three children later, and the youngest is going to be starting nursery soon.  I had thought that this would see me going back to the workplace, but to be honest, I don't see how that would work for us.  We have moved around the country helping Kenny get established in his career, and we still need someone to look after the kids, do lots of housework, and deal with holidays, sick days, and head lice.  It's easiest if it's me, so I'm trying to find ways to do things with my brain that fit around doing all this.  Working for myself, if I work at all, seems to be the way to do this, because even flexible employers don't seem to be flexible enough.

I don't think my story is that different to lots of other people.  It isn't that there is an overt push, just that working doesn't suit.  I'm very lucky to be in a marriage wherein we can afford for me not to work.  There's a lot of people not so lucky, and yet even for them, work does not work when there are children.

The incompatible-with-children workplace culture seems to me to be the great push at the moment.  Sheryl Sandberg may be urging women to 'Lean In', but Google don't provide a creche at work, and long hours are how it's done (Mrs Sandberg may have had tea with her kids, but after that she left them with the nanny and went back to work).  In the 1970s we were looking forward to a four day week, so how have we ended up with this long hours culture?  It doesn't make any sense to me.  If there aren't enough jobs to go around, why does it take so long to do them?

But hold on a minute, is paid work better than unpaid work?  I don't actually think it is.  I mean, obviously we need money, and we have to get that into a household somehow.  But a home is about more than money.  And do you know what?  Being a full time Mum is a great thing to be.  I'm making people!  Not just producing them, but nurturing and encouraging them to be the best they can be.  This may not be paid work, but it is useful, and good.

Which brings us to the pull.  How are women being encouraged to leave the workforce?  In the 1950s, magazines made a big fuss over new-domesticity, and that's happening again now, in the form of The Great British Bake-Off, thrift chic, and a huge interest in crafting (last seen in the 1970s).  But all this is tempered by the low status of women's work in the home.  Apparently we should all want to go and do paid work (and presumably pay other women to do the work in our homes).

We once had a woman come into a toddler group  I went to.  She was employed by the local council to help people gain employment through training.  She came to give all of us full time Mums a talk about how we could get some basic maths, english, and IT skills on her courses, which would enable us to find work.  We could work in a shop, or be typists or something.  Oh the glory!  It didn't seem to have crossed her mind that anyone there could have chosen to be a full time Mum!  Or that anyone who did choose to be a full time Mum could have more than two brain cells to rub together.  She wasn't alone in this.  I've regularly been told that I'm wasting my education, being a full time Mum, and I'm often asked when I'm going to go back to work.

Well, I am working.  I am keeping a happy-ish home, creating people, and using my brain, and my education, all the time, whether designing junk robots, writing blog posts, or helping the kids with their homework.  I'm enabling my husband to go to work and earn the money we need.  When I have more time to myself, I might do more writing, but I would rather spend the time I can with my children than go out to work and pay someone else to do it.

Do you do paid work or unpaid work?  What would you do if you could?