When We Call Parenting “Unpaid Labor”
With the heartbreaking exception of those who become parents against their will, parents choose to create, adopt and step-parent children. Each family is its own beautiful creation with the capacity for strength, sanctuary, growth and love.
Labeling parenting as “unpaid labor” is common practice. Economists have tabulated the estimated value of unpaid domestic labor. Countless parents have written articles about it. And likely even more have complained about it. But it implies that someone should be paying. And isn’t.
So if parents should be getting paid for parenting that begs an enormous economic question. Who is supposed to be doing the paying? Who signs the checks?
It also introduces troubling complications. Are parents paid by child? Are single parents paid more? What about couples struggling with infertility? Should other people get to live their dream of having children and paid for it while infertile couples get nothing but bills and heartache?
What about people who long to be a parent but can’t even find a partner? How should they be compensated? And those who don’t want to have children? Are they to subsidize other people’s family choices?
Defining your family by having children is a commitment like any other relationship except for one extraordinary detail — you’re entirely responsible for another human life besides your own. Keeping a small human alive while you guide them through their early years and one day out of the nest on their own is as miraculous as creating or adopting in the first place.
Parenting is a responsibility — a monumental one — but it is not a job. It is an exhausting labor of love that tests every aspect of your being but a job is something you can quit with much less emotional trauma and far fewer legal consequences.
What I typically hear when I read articles or just comments to the effect of “I should be getting paid for this” what I typically read between the lines is just “this is so hard.” I suspect that the stagnating economy and asymmetrical relationships are the real culprits, or at least exacerbating factors in parental frustration — not that they truly feel they are getting cheated out of wages they’ve earned. But the tone of numerous articles and memes suggest otherwise for some.
If childrearing in your partnership has become asymmetrical, “unpaid labor” can be a course-correcting metaphor to guide a serious conversation with whomever you’re co-parenting. It can be a useful tally to help divide labor equitably between partners based on schedules, need and abilities.
If you need to do less and/or your partner needs to do more for an equitable division of labor — try having that conversation with them — not the internet. Unless you’re asking for suggestions about how to structure that conversation with your partner taking to the internet and decrying unpaid parenting labor as an actual social injustice only accomplishes one thing. Hyperbole.
There are three kinds of unpaid labor: volunteers, interns and slaves.
Parents are not slaves. They are not indentured servants. We know that no one is even inadvertently trying to minimize the complete dehumanization that is slavery. So don’t use hyperbole to vent your frustration.
When we talk about how much we would have to pay were we to hire a professional to do any babysitting, cooking, cleaning, errand-running or chauffering and then call that amount the dollar value of what we ourselves do in the home is not exactly apples to apples. Professionals are typically more skilled than we actually are because they specialize in their particular field. We have to pay professionals because they would otherwise gain nothing from the market transaction. We gain something whether we’re paid our not. A stranger doesn’t, and would incur a loss — the opportunity cost of time they could’ve spent doing something else for direct remuneration.
But do parents deserve the market rate for deep-cleaning their own house, babysitting or being a chef? What about a flat rate? Or the market value of what they would otherwise professionally be doing but are not earning waitress/doctor/lawyer/plumber/electrician/director wages because they’re “working for free” at home?
If someone besides you and your child were getting utility out of your sleepless nights, hard work and loving devotion they would pay you for it. That’s how jobs work. But no sector compensates you for the mechanics of your interpersonal relationships. There is no market demand for what you’re supplying.
Think about a farmers market or a holiday fair. Think about each booth selling figs, cilantro, ceramics, jewelry, massages, triple-milled soap or bamboo flatware. Customers decide if they’re willing to pay what producers charge. If you get enough utility out of their product or service you give them money in exchange for that.
Now imagine your children at a booth you run at the market. You have a list of prices scrawled in Pinterest-y cursive on a blackboard for every service you provide as a parent: keeping them alive, feeding them, taking them to the doctor, registering them for school, sports and lessons, helping with homework, loving them and maintaining a household they can call home. Now how much are those things, each its own category with its own list of requirements, worth to your average customer meandering through the market? And how much does that value diminish for each customer when every booth at that market is selling the same goods and services? You are not the only parent in the “marketplace”.
If you can afford to hire help and you choose to budget your money that way, great.
But do all parents “deserve” housekeepers that someone else pays for? What about housekeepers raising their own children? Who cleans the housekeepers’ houses? Wouldn’t that divide society into a servant class and an elite class? Who gets to be in the elite who can either outsource household labor or be compensated for doing it themselves? And again, who is supposed to be paying people to run their own households? Our fellow taxpayers? A grateful public? Oprah?
Yes, all of those activities take labor to maintain and complete. No, you are not compensated for any of them. Because no one gets any utility out of your meals, clean laundry, paid bills and vacuumed floors except you and the people you’ve chosen to share a home with. No one pays you to take your friend their medication or help them move. You’re not owed LMT rates for rubbing your partner’s back. Society is not failing you when it fails to deliver you a paycheck for living your life.
What we choose to do out of love (or guilt or habit) in our private relationships doesn’t entitle us to financial compensation, no matter how exhausted we are, no matter how endless the repetitive tasks are.
Society does not owe everyone the financial freedom to either be a stay-at-home parent indefinitely or to subsidize the cost of hiring housekeepers, chefs, babysitters or landscapers for you so you can focus on parenting, unburdened by the daily responsibilities of your own existence.
I read once that when you have children you give up a “psychic sense of freedom”. You will never not worry about your children, their safety, their wellbeing, their success and their happiness. The awareness that another being that you love more than anything in the world heightens your awareness to the dangers of the world. The hypervigilance that dominates their infancy calibrates with each phase of their lives. It fades to background noise as they age but it never disappears. And it is a price most parents never regret.
Instead of calling parenting unpaid labor online ask your partner for compassion, gratitude and fairness you can count on. Ask for it not as a stop-gap measure that only postpones the next breakdown. Ask for it as a lifestyle.
And keep supporting and uplifting other parents. No one knows how hard it is, all of the unique kinds of hard, quite like a fellow parent.