Article Apr 28, 2017

Valuing at-home work is a justice issue

Are stay-at-home moms a drain on the economy? It’s a question that was recently asked by an Australian columnist, leading to a variety of opinions on whether or not the work of the home is a contribution to society or a strain. It’s a never-ending conversation, really, brought on by the “mommy wars” and an attempt to justify the choices women make. We all want to feel like we’re doing what’s best for our lives. But the question actually reveals what’s wrong with our cultural understanding of at-home work, or even low-wage work in general.

In order to understand why we have such a hard time valuing unpaid work, caregiving work and the work of the home, we have to understand how our culture has grown and evolved regarding this work. We also have to understand that the widespread cultural devaluing of unpaid or low-wage work is a justice issue as well.

We live in a cultural moment that sees compensation as the standard for the goodness of work. Consider how we view work that is unpaid, or low-wage. Many see it as work that’s not real, like the columnist from Australia asserts. Much like the people James is speaking to in James 2, we give greater honor to the people who make more money, do the more impressive work and who can trade in the currency of our culture—namely, money.

We need a history lesson, though, to understand why our culture has had a hard time valuing at-home work. We have been devaluing the good work of the home for a while in our society, and we see it even in the fact that our country was grown on the backs of slaves who did domestic and hard labor for free.

Our society was built and sustained by enslaving African-American men and women and making them work for free. The work that we didn’t want to do, we gave to them. Fast-forward to modern America, and domestic help has largely been done by poor, minority women (even today). We easily miss the beauty and goodness of the work of the home when we live in a society that treats that work as beneath educated and wealthy human beings.

In Caitlin Flanagan’s 2007 book, she recounts how the shift of role of housewife to that of at-home mother has led us to see certain types of at-home work as beneath us. Flanagan remarks that this shift has made the work of the home irrelevant to some and even oppressive to others:

“She is ‘at home’ only because that is where her children happen to be. She does not define herself through her housekeeping; if she is in any way solvent (and many at-home mothers are), she has at the very least, a once-a-month cleaning women do the most onerous tasks.”

She goes on to say that what’s most troubling about this trend is that the women’s movement of the last century has actually given women freedom from having to do the tasks they find oppressive (childcare and housework) on the back of poor and minority women. This is something to consider as we think through the theology of at-home work and how we subject women who are “other” than us to do the things we don’t like and don’t value.

We’re all tempted to miss God’s good design for all of our work and pit one type of work against another.

Even in the church, it’s easy to place value on the more visible and seemingly successful work of people in the paid-labor force than on the work that’s done for very little (or for free). We’re all tempted to miss God’s good design for all of our work and pit one type of work against another.

There are a variety of ways to combat this cultural disdain for at-home work—some more obvious, others less so. Of course, it requires a mindset shift that doesn’t see compensation as the standard for greatness and value. But we also must recognize that we live in a society that inadvertently (and sometimes advertently) places unpaid/low-wage work on a lower level. We don’t allow for paid-leave when women have children. We’re willing (and even demand) to pay less for things that we don’t want to do (nannies, laundry, housework). We give greater honor to the more visible and “pretty” work.

When we embrace the caregiving work that’s done in the home as a vital contribution to society, then it doesn’t matter if it’s paid or not. Contribution is the standard, not compensation. But we also must do our best to advocate for those who are doing it for less, who have little means to make their voices heard. Christians can be a voice of value for the marginalized in a society that pits one type of work against the other, saying along with countless saints who have gone before us that no matter our work, if it’s done in the Lord, it’s never in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).

Editor's note: Be sure to grab Courtney's new book Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God

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