The problem with the invisibility of unpaid work & parenting

The problem with the invisibility of parenting

invisible parenting
It’s been over a month now since my book was published, and a little over two months of effectively having another job, in addition to editing Women’s Agenda and co-parenting our three daughters.

Promoting and launching Breaking Badly has, fortunately, required a significant amount of my energy and time. (Fortunate because the alternative – having no interest whatsoever in the project I’ve poured my heart and soul into – would be crushing.)

It’s been busy and during the past eight weeks I have been asked, often, by friends, family, colleagues and readers, how it’s all been. My answer, every time, has been the same.

It’s never the “work” that I find hard. It’s fitting the “work” around all the home stuff, the parenting, the domestic duties, that I find stressful. Immensely so.

The first 36 hours of my Melbourne trip to promote the book involved an early flight during which I finished a newspaper column and edited two articles, recorded almost two hours of radio, did five book signings, attended two meetings, spoke at an event, did an hour-long podcast interview and I didn’t raise a sweat.

Yet the evening before bathing, feeding and getting our girls into bed with everything ready for school the next morning saw me finish the day practically rocking back and forth in the foetal position. Truly.

Each time I’ve made the disclosure about finding work easier than home I’ve felt a pang of guilt.

Why is it that I find the task of nurturing and caring and feeding and managing the logistics of three children so demanding?  Why is that so much more stressful than standing in front of a hundred people and telling them in graphic detail about the time I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital?

Am I doing it wrong? Are my daughters doing it wrong? Why is it so hard?

These are the questions I’ve been scrutinising and a plausible explanation for this hit me in the car back home on Friday like a jolt of lightning. I was listening to a podcast conversation between Clementine Ford and Wil Anderson when it suddenly became clear.

Clementine made a comment about the prevailing assumption that mothering isn’t ‘really work’. The fact that caring work is invisible – it isn’t measured or valued despite being worth billions of dollars to every economy around the globe each year –  isn’t news to me.

I know it – academically – back to front and I have for a long time. I rally against it – personally and professionally.

But I hadn’t realised, not properly, the extent to which I had internalised the idea that parenting isn’t work. How else to explain why I might be surprised that managing three kids is actually not a cinch?

The truth is, joy and love notwithstanding, and regardless of the fact it’s unpaid, raising kids and running a home is work.

Breastfeeding. Cleaning. Washing. Planning. Shopping. Cooking. Nurturing. Driving. Helping with homework. Negotiating. Mediating. Disciplining.

They are all actual jobs that require time and energy, and the emotions involved are far more raw, intense and extreme than I’ve encountered in any workplace.

On Friday evening, after successfully completing another week of work, another week in which all three kids were fed and dressed and delivered to their various fixtures and activities, after another evening meal had been prepared and served and cleaned away, after teeth were brushed, bedtime stories read, songs sung, fears allayed and the suddenly-urgent questions answered. I turned out the lights and returned to the kitchen.

It was our turn to supply the fruit for two different sports for two of our daughters on Saturday. As I cut up oranges and watermelon and strawberries I thanked myself for remembering to stock up on the additional fruit earlier in the week. I thought about the thinking to check the various Apps in which the sports teams are managed to see if it was our turn. The planning. The buying. The cutting. The remembering.

It’s all work. Recognising that and owning it has already made me feel better.

It dawned on me that perhaps one of the reasons I find the task of raising a family so much more stressful than work is because of the subliminal expectation that it will be easy. The fact it’s unpaid and largely invisible perpetuates this falsehood.

No one expects paid work to be easy. Certainly, I’ve discovered, no one expects writing a book to be easy which is wonderful because it isn’t. It is recognised as something challenging. Parenting ought to be viewed in the same way.

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