Radical thoughts on work

In the comments to the first of my Creativity posts, Liza made the following comment:

Recently I’ve realized that a really important factor was their Montessori nursery school experience where children and their parents learned to respect the work of play. What kids did was called work and not simply dismissed as silly child’s play.

My intention is not to criticize Liza as I had been thinking about this for a while in relation to other things, but I do want to talk about this opposition between “work” and “play”. Thanks for inspiring me to actually do it, Liza. In particular, I think that in our culture the modifer “silly child’s” is assumed even when not stated. So I want to start by stating some things that might upset people. And then explain why more of us should be upsetting more people in this way.

Play is not work.

Mothering is not a job.

The inverse of both of these statements comes from the same place. We all recognize that the subjects of both sentences (“play” and “mothering”) are not valued in our society. When we claim that play is work, or that mothering is a job, we are making a political statement. We are saying that play and/or mothering should be valued, just as work is valued.

The problem is, politically, that this strategy reinforces the very problem it seeks to solve. By equating play and/or mothering with work in order to value the former, we are implicitly accepting that work is valuable. And that play and/or mothering only have value in as much as they can be considered work.

Now, I can sort of imagine where some might argue that this isn’t a problem. But I would argue that the very things we value about play and/or mothering are those aspects of play and/or mothering which are not like work.

When we were talking about Creativity (me and the people I linked to, and the folks in the comments; this is a great discussion), one of the things we were emphasizing was that we needed to just be able to explore materials, to have too much, to not focus on the end product prematurely. And some of us talked about the pleasure in creativity. Or the deep sense of personal satisfaction. Some of what we value about creativity is not about the work aspects (producing something useful), but the freedom and joy of play.

When we argue that play is the work of children, not only do we devalue the importance of play (maybe called “leisure” or “recreation”) for adults, but we feed into a line of argument that leads directly to universal preschool, the structuring of day care and preschool in relation to the needs of the school that comes after, the undervaluing of the personal and specific knowledge of mothers and others who know particular children well in favour of early childhood educators and other specialists, and the constant reduction of recess, physical education, art and whatnot during the school day in favour of “more important” subjects.

I am not opposed to day care. I am not opposed to the government funding of more daycare spaces (which are desperately needed). I am opposed to the idea that what children need is a structured program of activities, designed by experts in early childhood development, from a very early age, to ensure that they develop all the necessary skills to enable them to not only read, write, and do arithmetic, but also sit still, listen to a teacher, and so on. I am opposed, in other words, to children being required to work and to produce.

And I am constantly reminded that even the mothers who do not send their children to day care or preschool, and even many mothers who homeschool, feel pressure to provide this sort of programme for their children (even if they don’t always do it). Why else would the mothers of 3 year olds be calling what they do “homeschooling” (instead of “mothering”)? And why would some homeschoolers regularly give advice to such mothers to just let their little ones play?

And that leads neatly from “play” to “mothering” . . . Mothering is not a job. Mothering is not work. Mothering is a relationship. Yes, it involves effort. No, stay at home moms don’t sit around doing nothing all day. Yes, laundry and cooking meals and finding appropriate toys and cleaning up sick and all that other stuff is work. But mothering itself, and what we most want to have valued about mothering, is a relationship. By focusing on the work part, we do not make any inroads into making people value the part of mothering that we most value. Go and read any random collection of mom-blogs and you will see that what mothers most value about mothering is the depth of the relationship with their children. And though it will be harder to find, because they aren’t as plentiful, if you find anything written by dads who have chosen to stay at home or to take parental leave or just to make an effort to spend more time with their children, you will see that what they value most about that experience is the relationship with their kids.

No one gets deep personal satisfaction from cleaning up shit. But the intimate act of washing and changing your baby, and the opportunity that changing diapers offers for focused exchange with your baby (making faces, talking, gently stroking them, etc.) means that many parents do find deep personal satisfaction in activities that, from a work perspective, are about cleaning up shit.

Here’s the thing. Both stay-at-home moms and employed moms share this valuing of the relationship aspects of mothering. Sometimes they don’t understand how you could have a good relationship with your child if you are not there for big chunks of the day or, conversely, how you could have a good relationship with your child if you are busy doing all the work part. But many employed mothers are concerned about the quality of the day care available. Many of them are ambivalent about the focus on the “work of play” even for very young children and the (excessive) structuring of their children’s day. Many of them would also like more options in terms of both the quality of day care available and the number of options available to them for combining employment and mothering.

One of the reasons that parents have limited options (basically an all or nothing choice in many places, particularly the US) and that men find it very difficult to have closer relationships with their children, is that mothering is not valued as a relationship. In fact, I would go further and say that relationships are not valued much at all.

Instead of limiting our political demands to a recognition of the “work” aspects of play and mothering, we need to upset more people’s notions of what is really important. We should be arguing for the value of play (for everyone: adults and children) and for the value of relationships (all kinds: romantic, parenting, friendship, extended family, etc.) and the rebalancing of life so that work is not taking up such a big chunk of everyone’s time and energy. If work were not so overvalued, and play and relationships so undervalued, our society would be a much nicer place.

Just to be clear about my opinion of Liza’s comment, I actually think it is great that the Montessori education her kids had valued play and taught both kids and children that play is important. My only beef, is with the choice to do that by calling it work.

Play is not work. Mothering is not a job. Both play and mothering are very important.


4 thoughts on “Radical thoughts on work

  1. I think you are overlooking a very critical distinction in the assumption that all parents actively parent. Far too many are not active in their role, and this is where I will proudly use the term “work.” Many forget that parent is a VERB, and assume children will raise themselves beyond their most basic necessities of food and shelter. Even as a relationship, you must “work” at it for it to flourish and grow (as no work creates a stagnant vacuum).

    This does bring to mind a term we used in a feminist anthropology class I took in college, called “housewifization.” The way in which a woman’s work in the home was demoralized by society as she was not financially producing. By definition, the jobs done are indeed work if they are paid (day care provider;housekeeper; cook; operations manager; accountant; chauffer), and therefore deserve to be equally valued, with our without outside pay.

    Just another way to look at it!


  2. Agree that relationships are not valued as work is, and that work is over-emphasized and over-valued.
    Also, re the differences between mothers who stay at home and those who are employed – mine worked from when I was 6, and I had lots of looking after by other people, but it is she that I remember rather than those who did some of the ‘work’ aspects for us. She is the person I know, trust, can rely on, who knows me and loves me as I am (and not in a rosey-specs sort of way!)
    That seems to me where the relationship part of parenting comes in…


  3. Emily sent me here to look at your Creativity posts, but the first thing I see is this, which pushes many of my buttons (in a good way). I completely agree that work is overvalued, and it’s refreshing to consider the obvious corollary that we shouldn’t try to call things work in order to get them valued higher.

    Angela, I know that good relationships require nurturing (even “work”), but I think there’s a big difference between putting work *into* a relationship, and categorising that whole relationship as “work”. Every time I hear someone say “Marriage/relationships are hard work”, I think, “You’re choosing the wrong relationships.” …Or maybe damaging the relationship by thinking of it in that way?


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