Five Things We Know about Women’s Free Labor

It’s an old story, of course. The ongoing narrative about the work of caregiving. It’s largely unremunerated. And unrecognized. And almost always done by women.

Just look at your Facebook feed. Check out the volume of posts by women matter-of-factly reporting on the care they are giving, seeking, managing or worrying about for people they love. Mother of a challenged newborn. Wife whose husband is hospitalized is managing his medical options plus the kids’ emotional turmoil. Daughter of an octogenarian wants recommendations about nursing homes. Mother of two boys seriously injured reports on an insurance crisis. Twentysomething best friend is looking after her peer in rehab after knee surgery. Neighbor seeking anonymous contributions to help a family whose breadwinner died suddenly.

I know that none of this is unfamiliar to you, Dear Reader. I did say it’s an old story.

And (not to see the world according to a gender binary), I’m betting that Facebook posts by men you know are mostly on their world-moving opinions on global issues.

Here are a few things we know (and need to remember) about women’s free labor in weaving this web. BTW, be a little surprised that I’m not railing against a system for exploiting women.  

1. Women expect to be called on, and to be on call.

All of this is our village. Being able to take some time off from paid work to do our unpaid “species work” — as Rabbi Susan Schnur once named it — is one of the blessings provided to some fortunate employees by the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act. (The act would have won approval from the late, great Bella Abzug, who once suggested we all go out into the world and affix stickers to such things as ads featuring women in leadership, gender-equal rosters, nonsexist packaging and equitable laws: “This Change Brought to You by Feminism.”)

But whether the workplace reacts well or not, truth is our communities (largely of women) are accustomed to snapping into place: meals for the kids at home, an offer of a ride to the hospital, the willingness to walk someone’s dog, feed the fish, water wilting plants (watering plants being a proxy for all the maintenance items of daily life). 

2. Big-tent feminism lets us recognize women for our unremunerated work in fixing the world.

Almost every woman expects to participate in the paid labor economy during her adult life. Except for when she’s taking care of others.

I’m not talking here about the routine matters of running a household with young children, or preparing lunch for your officemates, or organizing a meeting for your professional organization or for the local save-the-park group. I’m talking about the draining, scary work of caregiving and organizing that falls to women who have to spring into action when someone they love (or even just someone they know) is in need of succor. No apologies for answering these needs empathically.

But we do need to hallow the work that we do, honoring it just as we now want to honor the humble objects handed down from previous generations (see “Material Culture” in this issue), because caregiving is the connective tissue of community. 

3. Women appear to be elastic. We seem to be able to stretch our days (and even our nights) to accommodate the needs of other people.

Those Facebook posts and my own intimate brushes with caregiving have me thinking about the sheer number of hours women log in. Every item on your to-do list spawns its own subset of time-sinking but necessary items.

Which brings me to: Rabbi Sue Fendrick, who expressed her appreciation to friends for help she’d needed and received. Then she asked her Facebook buddies to tell her when they need help, “especially single mothers.” Her words stuck; they reminded me of how infrequently we’re explicit about the help we ourselves could use. 

4. We don’t ask often enough for what we need.

There’s a lot in the air about collaboration in business, and in this issue of Lilith in a piece on the differences in leadership styles among generations of Jewish feminists. But we’ve not heard enough about asking for collaborators in other contexts, or asking for what we need, so that our shoulders don’t have to bend as we bear the weight of it all ourselves. Perhaps social media make it easier. Our asking can be depersonalized when we’re just putting the request out there and not making ourselves directly vulnerable with any individual. When you’re confident your request will be heard, it can be as simple as asking for a ride to a doctor’s appointment. The Yiddish maxim quoted by my late Babba sounds in my ears. “Az m’klopt, amfertmen.” Knock and they will answer.

5. There is no dishonor in not getting paid for caregiving. Yet we have no honorable mechanism for rewarding it.

There may be sacrificial economic and personal costs when an individual has to care for another. But in addition to acknowledging this as we do our deep breathing, let’s validate this caregiving as the important contributor that it is — not only to the welfare of the individuals being looked after, and to that person’s micro-system, but also to the health of the village as a whole. Caregiving reinforces the security of the web that holds us together, whether the knots are of kinship or friendship.