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Archive for June, 2011

I’m all for positive discrimination when it’s merited and, let’s face it, it very often is. Having witnessed the progress of women in Irish politics being systematically thwarted over the decades I fully support the proposed introduction of candidate quotas – many of the most enlightened and progressive democracies in the world have used them very effectively to introduce some much-needed gender balance into their parliaments.

However, I’ve always struggled with the notion of women only prizes in the arts, such as the Orange Prize for Fiction - due to be announced later today – or the MaxMara Art Prize for Women. To me the establishment of such closed competitions is tantamount to admitting “we can’t play with the big boys in the park so we’re taking our ball home to kick it around in the safety of our own back garden”. That sporting analogy prompts me to mention those sporting competitions where women are unable to compete directly against men but where they refuse to let this hold them back. For years women who competed at Wimbledon grudgingly accepted less prize money than their male counterparts despite thrilling fans with edge-of-the-seat showdowns time and time again. Finally in 2007 reasonableness prevailed and Wimbledon joined the United States and Australia in paying equal money across the board, from the champions down to the first-round losers in all events.

We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man.

It’s different in the arts. We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man. Any handicap we have suffered from in the past has been a lack of access to the funding and critical evaluation long taken for granted by men. For that reason I’m all for supporting women in the arts and introducing their work to the widest possible audience. I hate to see fiction trivialised when it happens to be written by a women while at the same time the latest considered and weighty tome gestated by some male, white middle-aged sage is fawned over and lavished with praise by the predominantly male reviewers writing in the quality press.

Loath though I am to give them the oxygen of even more publicity the recent musings of Nobel laureat and highly acclaimed author, VA Naipaul are relevant in this context. The venerable old gent is certain that there is no woman writer he could possibly consider his equal and that we are held back by our “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. This, he feels perhaps, cannot be helped. As Naipaul helpfully points out,”inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Do we really want to live in a society that encourages highly respected and accomplished men like Naipaul to believe that remarks like these are acceptable? Although patently and painfully antediluvian it is the existance of such distain that makes me believe that we should focus all of our attention on getting our work out there and beating them at their own game. For men who remain convinced that wimmin’s books are not for them Joylandmagazine.com has helpfully compiled a list of 250 gems that are worthy of their attention (and this is just for starters – there are many, many more).

We can undoubtedly kick ass. Whilst more men have carried off the prestigious Man Booker prize the women that have triumphed to date are undoubted stars – women like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Attwood, Pat Barker and Iris Murdoch. The shortlisted authors for the 2011 Orange prize includes books that are arguably deserving of a place on any Man Booker shortlist - Room was in fact included – or international equivalent:  Emma Donoghue’s Room, Aminatta Forna’s  The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

I’m far less ambivalent when it comes to the showcasing of women’s talent. Women have historically been denied the power, influence, resources and encouragement to produce and display our work to the widest audience possible and that imbalance needs to be redressed. Our art galleries are still stuffed to the gills with work produced, promoted and prized by men. Events like the inaugural Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre provided the head-and-gallery space to allow a wide audience to view, critique and comment on the work of many hundreds of talented, imaginative, creative women who were all too often pushed into the shadows in the past.

These event and others like the Birds Eye View Film festival seem like a good idea to me. They are undoubtedly a valuable vehicle facilitating the promotion of oft neglected work. Feminist commentator Bidisha recently wrote in the Guardian, “people who loath women’s events do so because they loath women and cannot stand to be around them”. She adds that these events help to shatter the myth that women are in some way unworthy of hanging their work alongside that produced by man, saying, “women are not too shy, too talentless, too scarce, too petty, too this or that…or not enough of something else”.

This I applaud. My problem is with the prizes; the artificial pat on the back for the woman who sees off fifty percent of her peers without troubling the other lot. By all means push us forward, give us a platform, review our work on an equal basis, give us the gravitas and the column inches but when it comes to the prizes let us compete with the boys and not just amongst ourselves. I’d be genuinely interested to hear the counter argument or any comments as this is something that  has always caused me a degree of discomfort.

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Ava Gardner adopts the confident poise of a non conformist

A lo-fi internet connection coupled with inventory lapses in both Laser and HMV has left me with a hard-nosed jones to watch Mogambo, the 1953 flick starring Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable.  After reading Ava Gardner’s memoir Ava: My Story, where she highlights the role in terms of one she wore as a second skin, as I turned the page I needed to see it like yesterday.  (Plus the book is worth reading because it’s filled with vivid detail, including Gardner’s descriptions of the arguments if not battles she carried on with third husband Frank Sinatra, as well as candid assessments of the first two marriages to Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw. Gardner’s memoir is so juicy it should come with a napkin). What most peeks my interest about Gardner’s recollection of Mogambo is that the storyline takes a radical departure from the Hollywood playbook wherein so-called ‘Bad Girls’ such as her character Eloise Kelly seldom land the man and have the happy ending.  Eloise, a tippling fast-talker, lands her guy over the prim Linda Nordley, played by Grace Kelly. (Have to admit that I was never a fan of Grace Kelly.  If she were on the Hollywood scene today, she’d be the type to marry Tom Cruise.  She’s creepy and bloodless onscreen).

Traditionally, celluloid narrative arcs set for the ‘Bad Girl’ stock figure dictate she never gets the guy in the fade out.  Trangressive women onscreen have existed to receive punishment, comeuppance, even death in order to underscore the normative morality culture proscribes, as the stuff of which conservative gender roles play a significant part.  Whether uppity, slutty, boozy or back-talkers, all such offending women have been served a lesson on film.  Cinema screens have produced a sizeable catalogue of Bad Girls in need of correction, from Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929); Bette Davis as Julie in Jezebel (1938); Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen in The Women (1939); Elizabeth Taylor’s Oscar winning turn Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1959) (a film which she—to her credit—referred to as a ‘piece of shit’); Ava Gardner later in Night of the Iguana; up to the plot resolution of Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends, audiences have become primed for the Bad Girl to be issued a smackdown before the final scene.

There are two qualifiers which offer an alternative ending for Bad Girls on film: mistaken identity or reform, resulting in vindication or transformation for the lady in question. Rita Hayworth as titular Gilda set the gold standard for the conception of Emma Stone’s character Olive in Easy A,or other films featuring the message about the danger of hasty judgements of a lady’s character, but only when she hasn’t actually earned the defamatory slut shaming.  Then there’s the case of reformed Bad Girls,those ladies ranging from Eliza Doolittle to Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman who share the same reformation-as-fairy tale ending, which reminds the Bad Girls that they just have to become whatever a man wants in order for their happy ending to be realised.  Cue the eyeroll, right?

The elusive fourth option, to stay a Bad Girl and still get the man seems the point of Mogambo.  Maybe we need to gather to screen this rare gem?

So what about an Anti Room Film Club?

Anyone interested in meeting up to screen and discuss classic films?

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Back in the late 1980’s, Madonna – the singer – wore crucifixes as fashion accessories. Within five minutes, teenage girls all over the world were aping her. Shane Lynch, of Boyzone, has been snapped wearing Rosary beads as have Christina Aguilera, Shakira, Rihanna and Kelly Osbourne.

Catholics have registered their discomfort with symbols of their faith being used as frivolous fashion accessories. Indeed, in the convent where I went to school, we were expressly forbidden from wearing rosary beads, because they were just for praying with. This direction appears to be based on Canon Law, which states “Sacred objects, set aside for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated with reverence. They are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even though they may belong to private persons”.

In the past month, two designers have fallen foul of Hindus for depicting deities on their clothing. Australian swimwear manufacturer, Lisa Blue,  apologised to members of the Hindu community at the beginning of May: An  image of Goddess Lakshmi appeared on items of its apparel at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week (RAFW) in Sydney at the end of April.  In the past few days,  design house Manish Arora has removed images of leggings, miniskirts and harem pants from its website following complaints about the depiction of Lord Shiva on them.

Members of the Hindu community were outraged that images of revered gods were represented on clothing made to be worn on the lower parts of the body.

But do those who get their knickers in a twist over the wearing of traditionally religious symbols as fashionable accoutrements  need to lighten up? Does it matter? Should they be grateful that their religion is being celebrated – no matter what form that celebration takes? Should they rejoice at the fact that their religion is reaching a wider audience? Or is their outrage justified? What do you think?

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The Essence of Summer

June is here and it’s time to make the annual batch of elderflower cordial. An aunt of mine always made this when we were children. I loved it, so a few years ago I started to make my own. The flavour is unique and refreshing, and heralds the arrival of summer for me.

Elderflowers are everywhere at the moment

Beautifully scented, frothy cream elderflowers are to be seen all over the fields and gardens of Ireland at the moment. They will be around for the next couple of weeks, so seize the moment!

I have given guideline quantities below, but the amount of sugar, water or lemons you use can be varied to taste. Most people use more sugar to water than I have here.

Ingredients:

20-30 elderflower heads

1.5 kg of sugar

2 litres of boiling water

2-4 lemons and/or limes

50g of citric acid – available from pharmacies

Method:

Gather your flowers (not from roadside trees, too polluted). Gently shake them to remove tiny insects.

Make up a syrup by pouring the boiling water over the sugar in a large pan. Keep stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Thickly slice the lemons and limes and add these to the pan (you can zest these first and add that too if preferred). Stir in the citric acid. Now add the elderflowers. Cover the pan with a cloth and leave the mixture to steep for 24-48 hours.

Strain the mixture through a fine sieve or muslin (I have also used coffee filters) to remove flowers and fruit. Bottle in very clean bottles using a funnel. Glass bottles are best but I have used plastic ones too, enabling me to freeze some of the cordial.

Dilute for a taste of summer

Serving suggestions:

  • Dilute the cordial with sparking water. Add ice and a slice and a sprig of mint for a delicious summery drink
  • Add a splash to a gin and tonic, or to a white wine spritzer
  • Pour over vanilla ice cream
  • Use to sweeten rhubarb, gooseberries or strawberries
  • Add to salad dressings

Second photo by Claire Sutton (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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My daughter and her all-female class made their First Communions recently. The massed ranks in the church were quite a sight to see. Immaculately coiffed hairdos, amazingly stylish frocks, even a few fake tans.

Yes, the mothers looked stunning. Of course all the little Communicants were beautiful, and they could never be overshadowed by their Mums on their special day. But it has to be said, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Once I had my gúna purchased, I had thought my own preparations were more or less complete. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, sartorial and cosmetic arrangements were the talk of the playground. Who was wearing what, were the blowdry appointments booked, would the few pounds be shed and had the right shoes and jacket been located?

In spite of myself, I gradually found myself being swept along by all this.

A life-long hater of fake tan, I cautiously purchased a bottle of moisturiser which promised a hint of built-in tint. I slapped it on for a few days and fretted about smelling like a biscuit or ending up with orange palms and elbows. As it turned out, I’d been too cautious; the light shade I had chosen made no discernible difference to my skin colour. I did emit a slight biscuitty fragrance though.

I also bought slightly higher-than-normal-for-me shoes (with wedge heel to enable me to walk) even though I’m not that fussed about shoes. I had the eyebrows threaded. I booked a professional blowdry for my very easy to maintain hair.

I realised I was losing it when, seized by a last-minute anxiety about being out-glammed in the church, I began desperately experimenting with different make-up the day before the Communion. Confronted by the slightly scary results in the bathroom mirror, I told myself to get a grip. After all, it wasn’t about me.

Well, we all love dressing up, don't we?

The maternal glamour quotient was extremely high the next morning –  noticeably higher than at my son’s Communion four years ago – and I was glad I’d made the extra effort. Though I did wonder who we were all trying to impress. Each other? The viewers of the family photos in years to come? Was it significant that it was our daughters making their Communions – were we subconsciously trying to compete with them? Surely not.

Of course, on the day our daughters were the stars of the show. Every parent’s heart was full of pride as the girls sang their well rehearsed hymns, brought up gifts and did readings. Whatever your feelings about the First Communion ritual (and stepping back from it a little, the white dresses and the cash gifts are a bit odd really) it was difficult not to be moved by the innocent seriousness with which they took it all.

A wonderful day – and the photos turned out well. Phew.

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In her late teens, Jillian Lauren was snapping up luxurious evening gowns and lingerie on shopping sprees at Chanel and Louis Vuitton. She was driven to shops by private chauffeurs and escorted inside by hired security guards; the shop girls scrambled to get her whatever she desired. Her evenings involved wildly elaborate parties, complete with bottomless bottles of expensive champagne and endless heaps of caviar.

What sounds like an episode of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” was Lauren’s life at age 18, only she wasn’t so much the guest of honour as she was the high-priced entertainment. Back in the early ‘90s, the young New York University drop-out was a harem girl of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Lauren, now a wife and mother, is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, about her experience as a high-class prostitute.

So how did a young girl from Jersey end up half-way around the world in a palace vying for the attention of a playboy Prince with two-dozen other call girls? A series of rebellious choices, most likely fueled in part by a troubled childhood, saw Lauren go from college student to part-time stripper to live-in working girl within a year. At first she thought she was going to Singapore for a two-week stint as company to a wealthy businessman, but when the plane landed in Brunei she was told otherwise. While she admits she was taken by surprise she also says she had the choice to leave. Lauren stayed six months before going back to New York City only to return for another six month period a short time later.

While some may hear her story and think Lauren was misled by those who brought her to Brunei, she takes full responsibility for her decision to stay.

“I was never hoodwinked by anyone and I walked into the situation in Brunei with my eyes wide open. In fact, I think that the people who led me into that line of work were pretty forthright and respectful. Probably more so than most women who enter the sex industry at a young age,” says Lauren. “At the same time, I sometimes look back and bemoan my lack of role models. However, I was so headstrong and independent that even if someone had been around to talk sense to me, I probably would have done exactly the opposite.”

What attracted her to Brunei at first was the promise of something better, a fantasy life beyond her wildest comprehension. The willful teen was all about taking chances and seeing where life would take her. She’d had enough of the mundane, often suffocating suburban life of her childhood and was struggling to find her place at university in New York. The unknown, with all its possibilities, was more appealing at the time.

“I had absolutely no idea where I was heading. I was running entirely on the boldness of youth and my utter ignorance of consequences. If you had told me where my life would lead when I was first traveling to my dorm at New York University at the age of 16, I wouldn’t have believed you in a million years,” says the author.

Where Lauren found herself after arriving in the desert country was a richly appointed palace with a large house staff and a constant party atmosphere. The girls slept in their own private rooms, ordered whatever they desired from the palace kitchen and had full access to a state-of-the-art gym. In the evenings they’d dress up for parties – the guest list was always comprised of the Prince’s well-heeled friends – that started at 11 p.m. and didn’t wind down until dawn. The sex part didn’t even come into play until two weeks into her journey when the Prince, who selected whatever girl he wanted for an hour or for the night, chose her. This open selection process encouraged an often bloodthirsty nature among the girls; there was a sense of power that came with being the Prince’s favorite, though once attained keeping that intangible title was an entirely different effort. Not exactly Pretty Woman, not that prostitution ever is, says Lauren.

“In Some Girls, I’m pretty clear about where I stand on [that movie]. I say that the part about not kissing tricks is true and the rest is an insulting crock.  It’s the absolute worst manifestation of the Cinderella story – presented with no sense of consciousness or irony,” says Lauren. “There is no attempt at all made to deconstruct the myth, to make it relevant in some way to the complexity of modern relationships and power dynamics. What is the message, really? That we’re whores until we’re validated by a rich man, at which point we transform magically into princesses?”

The experience eventually led Lauren to a better understanding of herself, and while she says she would never go back to that life she’s clear that she doesn’t regret what it did for her emotional and spiritual growth. After leaving Brunei she went to college, struggled with drug addiction and worked a series of odd jobs before working her way through the past (a process that started only after she started “loving and trusting” herself) into the life she knows today. Lauren is now a successful author and journalist living in Los Angeles with musician husband Scott Shriner (bassist for Weezer). They are doting parents to son Tariku, who they adopted two-and-a-half years ago in Ethiopia. She credits her experience in part to helping her be a better wife and mother.

“The real lessons for me were learned as I looked back and reflected. I was able to discover a different level of compassion for both myself and for the other people who shared my story. I looked at pictures of myself from that time and I said, What was so wrong with me? Why did I hate myself so much? I was beautiful. I was hopeful. I was brave. I was adorable. I can see it now clear as day, but I couldn’t see it then. The story is about struggling to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself. I can’t think of a lesson that I use more as a mother, wife and friend than forgiveness.”

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem is available at Amazon UK. Lauren’s second book, Pretty, will be released in August. Learn more at her website: http://www.jillianlauren.com/

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I started writing a comment on the highly thought-provoking guest post by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller, ‘Women in the Media – Not’ and Motherhood v Careers, but it began to balloon, veer, swoop, and all sorts of other alarming things, so I decided to make it a post all of its own.

The discussion in the comments on Anna-Lena’s post is riveting and wide-ranging, as debates about parenthood and paid work tend to be. To tell the truth, I have a habit of shying away from such debates, because the emotions they evoke in me are fairly raw.

The Job of Being a Parent But what the hell, she said defiantly!

Here’s my experience:

I have a permanent, public-sector job, from which I’m currently on my second career break. I’ve done the work/parenting balance various ways since my two children arrived. At first, I went back to work full-time, then cut to four days, then took a one-year break. When I went back after that, it was half time, and when my second baby was born I took the career break I’m on now.

(Where is the father? I confess we fit a modern stereotype: he’s a committed feminist, an engaged parent, who earns considerably more than I do, in a career that doesn’t accommodate the kind of chopping and changing that I’ve undertaken – and even if it did, he wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about the idea. And at the same time, he is uncomfortable at being the sole earner in our household. Hooray.)

So, yes, obviously I’m enormously “lucky” to be in a position to do all this – the “family friendly” options available to me are a privilege denied thousands of other parents.

(The quotation marks around “lucky” and “family friendly”? We’ll come back to those.)

When I was working full-time in 2005, with my baby in a crèche, the economics of it angered me: the only reason why the crèche was “affordable” to us was that the women (yes, of course they were all women) who cared for our child were paid far less than my partner and I were. Their work, which was so utterly crucial to our family’s wellbeing, was apparently of considerably less “value” to society than ours.

To me, this is outrageously messed up. Yet in our current system, in the absence of free childcare from relatives, it’s usually the only way in which parents can sustainably work for pay – and as we know, a second or third set of childcare fees puts it out of reach for many.

(At my job, incidentally, I edit scholarly journals and monographs. I believe passionately in the effective dissemination of peer-reviewed research. But I don’t believe it’s intrinsically more valuable than providing a loving foundation for the development of a whole new person.)

Many children are happy in group care – and more are happy enough that it’s a good solution for the family.

Ours wasn’t.

I took my first career break largely for personal reasons: I had ignored my physical and mental needs to the extent that I was close to a breakdown, and in fact it was the HR manager at work who first suggested that I apply for time off. But within weeks, it became clear what a beneficial change it was for my child, too. I’ll never forget the transformation, in fact – from timid anxiety to … well, a much less heartbreaking native caution.

Lesson One: insofar as possible, parent the child you’ve got. One size does not fit all, and the size that seems a good fit for the parents may be overwhelming to the child.

Lesson Two: if the current setup isn’t functioning, it’s OK to try something else. (I wish I’d learned this one about six months earlier than I did.)

On career break, my anger became more raw. Suddenly, I was seen as “not working” – despite, from my perspective, working harder than I ever had in my life. The same caring tasks that the women in the crèche had done for low pay, I was doing for no pay and (it seemed) largely invisibly. The drop in status was as much of a shock to the system as the disappearance of my income.

We may note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool-privileged-middle-class daughter of two (full-time) academics: nothing in my life had prepared me for the notion that my chosen contribution to society might be seen as anything less than completely worthy and valuable. Call me naive! It was an awakening.

Even my parents didn’t seem to get that I was doing “real” work by caring for my child. And actually, even I didn’t get it at first. My mother has worked full-time all my life, as did hers, and as I settled into the so-called “stay-at-home” routine I was shocked and ashamed to find myself revising my unarticulated opinion of my aunts, who had left their jobs when they had children. Oh my actual god, said I to myself, all these years, they were working, and I never knew!

Ah, but is it really work, Ted?

Some people – including feminist friends whose opinions I hold in high regard – disagree with me that caring for one’s own children is “work”. In my experience, though, that’s exactly what it is. I’m talking about things like changing nappies, preparing and serving food, managing hygiene, mediating conflicts, administering first aid, handling emotional squalls, providing a safe (and age-appropriate) environment to explore, introducing and enforcing behavioural conventions, maintaining a social circle, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, these activities are work. They might often be enjoyable, or feel vocational, but plenty of paid work fits those criteria.

I mean, if they’re not work, what are they?

LEISURE?

I don’t think so.

The fact remains, of course, that caring work, especially if done for no pay by parents or close relatives, is largely invisible. The reasons for this are complex, but chief among them is a widespread preoccupation in our culture with tangible, preferably measurable outputs. At the end of a day with my children – and I imagine the same is true of caring for a sick or elderly relative – all I really have to show for my work is their own inscrutable selves, one day older.

And yet Studies Show (no, seriously, they do) that the quality of care, particularly for younger children, matters enormously. Not to be sentimental about it, children thrive on love, and on the practical manifestations of love that a committed carer provides. Children who aren’t given a loving foundation are at risk of developing affects and behaviours that are harmful to themselves or others.

(NOTE, incidentally, that I am BY NO MEANS suggesting that this care need come exclusively from a parent – never mind a mother. Any loving adults with whom the child feels safe and happy can potentially provide it. Furthermore, children do best when their caring adults feel good about their choices. So you can put that straw man away, please.)

That’s all very cerebral. Where’s the anger?

Partly, it’s in the disconnect between society’s description of me as a “non-working mother”, on the one hand, and on the other hand, my experience of working enormously hard all day (and all of the night, too – neither of my children was “a sleeper” … though the elder one figured it out eventually, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the younger one does).

Paid carers generally get to do things like, oh, arriving at work and, concomitantly, going home again, after all. Many of them even get unaccompanied loo breaks – which in my recent life have been for considerable periods a halcyon dream.

So, to summarise, if you do a job that allows breaks every day, weekends, sick pay, holiday pay – and, in fact, pay in the first place – you’re “working”. BUT if you perform exactly the same tasks, without any of the breaks or the pay and with a 24/7 on-call clause, you’re “not working”. Run that one by me again?

Partly, it’s in the resonant unease I feel at the phrase “stay-at-home mother” – as though I’ve completely withdrawn from some notionally bounded space called “the world” into a mysterious sphere called “the home”, from which I rarely emerge. See also: feminist discourse of the last two centuries.

Partly, it’s in the fact that my paid work is totally incompatible with my unpaid work: I have to make an either/or choice, and even though my employer is “flexible”, relatively speaking, that choice feels very constrained. (Here, by the way, is why calling myself “lucky” to have such a “family-friendly” employer isn’t exactly straightforward for me.)

This is about the traditional workplace, which conceives of a “worker” as being free to devote uninterrupted chunks of daily time to the employer. You can’t do that while actively caring for a young child. The problem is often articulated as the assumption that a “worker” has a “wife” – in other words, is supported by somebody doing care and maintenance work in “the home”.

Partly, it’s in the idea that by choosing to care for my own children, rather than pay someone else a meagre sum to do so while I go and sell my labour to a third-party, I am in some sense no longer “contributing”. My work isn’t reflected in the gross national product at the moment, ergo it’s “less valuable” than when I was earning a salary. Bizarrely, this would be true no matter what I might have been doing to earn that salary.

Partly, it’s in the way our current structure for rewarding work completely precludes the possibility of anyone ever paying me for the (difficult, valuable) work I’m doing at the moment. The “product” of my caring work, if you like, will be my adult children. (This is of course a collaborative project between me, their father, and several other adults in their lives, but currently, I’m putting in the greatest number of hours.) If we do a “good” job, the children are more likely – though not guaranteed – to grow up to be happy, functional, thoughtful members of society. What’s that worth? Classically, nothing, because nobody is prepared to pay for it.

Hello, rage.

I think we need to do two things

First, we reframe the concept of “work”, so that it encompasses more than just labour sold for money.

Some of my starting points:

  • Anything I could reasonably pay someone else to do is work. (Yes, this unsettles some categories, such as “hobbies”; I’m OK with that.)
  • Work can be joyful or arduous, or anything in between, and this bears no relation to pay.
  • Everybody deserves opportunities to perform joyful work, and to be fairly compensated for some or all of the work that they do.
  • The cultural bias against unpaid work is strong: we need to pay attention to where we unintentionally fail to see such work and thereby denigrate those who do it.

Second, we restructure the traditional workplace to get rid of the notion that a worker needs a wife.

To do this, we might adapt my favourite approach to the “problem” of maternity leave – change the default so that every worker is treated as though they were pregnant – and treat every worker as though they had caring responsibilities.

(Actually, when I put it like that, wouldn’t it be fabulous to live in a society where that were true? Where the burden of caring for those who needed it was in fact shared by everybody who could contribute? Let’s do that, shall we.)

What this might look like, I’m not sure. On-site care facilities in all companies? Across-the-board reduction and flexibility in working hours? A move away from the traditional obsession with working at a specific time and place? Massively increased carers’ allowances? Mandatory burden-sharing agreements between the employers of co-parents? Bring Your Child to Work Day, every day? Certified Work-Life-Balance Counsellors helping to design an individual solution for each family?

I don’t know. It’s a huge question. Perhaps, in our lifetime, we won’t get there from here. But I’d like to think that we could try.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the revolution, ahahaha, and in parallel with my caring work, I’m pursuing various creative and entrepreneurial projects (fiction writing, textile art, blogging), which may or may not bear fruit before I return to my job next spring. I have all kinds of complex feelings about work, pay, value, and so forth, and I don’t imagine they’ll get much simpler as time goes on.

Note on language: You may have noticed that I didn’t state either my children’s assigned genders or my marital status in this piece. This was deliberate. They’re not relevant to what I’m saying here.

Right then. Off we go.

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