Labor of Love

To begin with, I want to apologize for not posting anything for awhile. Three months ago, my wife divorced me and moved out of the house. Since then, I’ve been struggling with everything from financial problems, depression, and the dilemmas of shared custody. Currently, I am no longer a stay at home dad. I’m working full time now, and life has somewhat normalized for me again. Feeling somewhat stable, I feel I’m ready to start back in on my posts about being a father, and I believe I will have a new set of topics to write about, now that The Disturbed Dad can add The Divorced Dad under his title.

For my first topic as a divorced father, after having been left while being a stay at home dad, I want to talk about how housework has never been appreciated as real work. I recently read a great book called, “Wages for Housework” by Louise Toupin, in which she chronicles a movement among feminists in the 1970s, which was focused on advocating that state or federal governments provide monetary recompense for women’s work as housewives.

In this book, I found an amazing history that I had never heard about, and the ideals and issues discussed at the time of this movement resonated with my own current predicament and feelings as a dispossessed stay at home dad. The women leading this movement understood that they were wageless workers existing in a wage society. Because they provided indispensable labor to not only their families, but society as a whole, they felt that they should be paid for their labor. For anyone who has been the stay at home, there is a very real feeling that you have limited control over your own life and find yourself in a subordinate role to your wife or husband (the wage earners). To be clear, I am in no way trying to downplay the suffrage of women in this particular setting by comparing it to my own short experience as a stay at home dad. I do, however, think it is important to discuss the unfair exploitation and discrimination of people who don’t “work”, and instead raise children and provide housework.

According to Toupin, the International Feminists Collective (IFC) began this particular movement in 1972 and it was carried out by Wages for Housework groups in the US, Canada, England, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. The movement used Marxist ideology to relate housework within the sphere of capitalism. By producing children and raising them, women were providing companies with an unending “reserve of labor for the needs of capitalism”. On top of that, by providing revitalizing care to their “working” family members (i.e. meals, laundry, sex, etc.) housewives were guaranteeing “productivity and the quality of the worker” for businesses and society as a whole. In her book, Toupin cited other authors who asserted that the housewife never existed, as it is perceived in the context of the modern ‘nuclear family’, before the Industrial Age. Our capitalist society “relaunched and reorganized the patriarchy” with a “gendered division of work”. In this paradigm, housewives were dependent on the ‘wage earner’ and were unrecognized for their “wealth-producing labor”.

At that time, and as it still remains today, raising children and being a “homemaker” is considered something that should be provided for free. Most people believe it should be a “labor of love”, because to be paid for it would make the care providers seem greedy or loveless. To put it in a broader perspective, let’s just consider how women are perceived when they ask for money in exchange for sex. Many people (especially men) consider this as something that should be given for free, and so by charging for it you run the risk of being considered a whore. The Wages for Housework movement faced this very same hurdle in people’s perception in the 70s, not to mention their own internal debates about what direction the overall Feminist’s Movement wanted to work towards outside of this one issue.

However, it’s interesting to point out that this idea of money for housework wasn’t something unheard of. There literally were ‘family allowances’ instituted in England and Canada after WWII. These governments provided wages for housework. This lasted in both countries for almost 30 years until changes in legislation ultimately replaced these allowances with tax credits that only went to working men with families (1972). Women were once again dependent on wage earning husbands, with no financial freedom of their own. It’s also astonishing that tax credits for people with children or other dependents are still a normal part of legislation around the world and yet no one would consider giving money to someone without a “job” just for having children. When we do, we vilify these “jobless” mothers as those dreaded “welfare moms” who are living off of the labor of others.

To go even further, it’s goes without saying that housework is necessary. Daycares, nursing homes, and schools are the socialized embodiment of our need for the care which was once provided solely by women in the home. I think it’s very telling that we pay workers in these facilities crap wages too. As if, even professions related to housework should suffer the same undervalued sentiment that stay at homes experience.

There is also a phenomenon closely related to what is called the “brain drain” of poor countries by rich ones. In case you haven’t heard about it before, “brain drain” happens when highly educated people emigrate from their own countries to work in richer countries as doctors, engineers, and other professions of intelligence. This leaves countries with a population with less professionals overall, and these societies suffer from the lack of educated citizens. Similarly, there is a “care drain” that is happening due to the ever-present need for housework. We all know that rich families will employ immigrant workers or minorities as maids, babysitters, and cooks. These ‘housekeepers’ are leaving there own children and homes for most of the day to care for other peoples’ families. A cited author in Toupin’s book refers to this as a “colonial solution to our housework problem”. Such a “care drain” creates a desertification of care in other hemispheres of society.

Despite all this evidence for the value of housework, it is still not considered a valued profession. At least, not in the way we value a profession that is assigned a monetary wage. Surprisingly, the Wages for Housework movement was abandoned by the feminists of the 1970s for multiple reasons. It was mainly believed that it would be detrimental to the overall goals of feminists at the time, as providing wages to mothers would most likely cement them in the housewife role and ultimately institutionalize them in the home (and feminists were trying to get women out of the kitchen). Eventually, the movement was forgotten almost entirely. Housework was once again the profession that was supposed to be compensated with love.

This was a great history for me to learn about just as my wife was leaving me. Towards the end of my marriage, my wife had completely taken over the financial power in the house. By setting up her own bank account (which I couldn’t access) and having her pay directly deposited in it, I was left without any money of my own. As the date in which she would move out of the house (and leave me the necessity of paying all the bills,) got closer and closer, she refused to provide me with money to acquire day care or babysitting when I needed to look for work and start the interviewing process. For all my work, in maintaining the home, caring for our children, and giving her the ability to perform her job without any care or crisis, I was left with $1600 when she moved out of the house (half of our most recent tax refund). As the new head of household, I had no job and was told by the state that, because I only had 50% custody and not 51%, I did not qualify for TANF (welfare assistance). It took me 3 months to find work, and I am now severely in debt.

What a shock that this was the current state of affairs in 2019. When I asked a lawyer if I had a case for alimony or child support from my ex-wife, he chuckled and told me if I was able bodied (meaning, if I didn’t have a disability) no court would award me (a man) either. Perhaps it is different in other states, but that was the case for me. In other aspects of society, I get very little sympathy from people when I tell them what happened. I’m a man. Most people think I should just get a job. Not only that, but most people believe my sons are better off in daycare and summer school (with before and after school programs) than they are at home with me. It will make them more social, they say. I can only feel devastated at the loss of time I could have had with my sons at this young age, when they still think I’m cool and want to hang out with me.

Even though I’m not a stay at home dad anymore, I want to remain within this “modern” movement of men as houseworkers. I truly believe that we can bring a whole new energy to bear on this housework problem. I think that men, as stay at homes, could help progress social change that women could not. Maybe men could start the conversation of wages for housework again without running the risk of being perceived as whores, because it’s kind of absurd to think of us that way (and all too easy to view women in that light). I’m not trying to steal any thunder from the feminists, or women in general either. In fact, I’m hoping to help carry the torch and get some pretty basic ideals into the light and, hopefully, see some change in people’s views about housework and maybe get better legislation to benefit stay at homes within my lifetime. Wouldn’t it be great to see men leave the wage earning jobs they have been institutionalized into, to instead provide the housework for their families? Maybe this is just what we need for our own urgency for a transformation in how men are perceived and treated in society.

Whether you are a man or a woman, working full time or part time, have full custody or partial, the housework you provide to your children and your families is priceless. To set a cost to what you do out of love is hard to wrap your head around, but as long as we live in a wage society, it’s unfair for ANY worker to go without pay. The way that this current paradigm is set up in our culture between the main wage earner and the main caregiver inevitably causes a disparity in power and opens the door to economic abuse of the wageless. For some reason, the plight of the stay at home has become a cliche in regards to the underappreciated. Let’s continue to do this labor out of love, but let’s also get paid for it too.

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