Last night I met up with a good friend of mine for happy hour drinks in our neighborhood where we talked and talked for nearly three hours…
We’re both parents of kids who aren’t yet eligible for Covid vaccination – but soon they will be! – and are among the more cautious in a peer group, so when we get together it’s always outside to limit the risk of getting Covid and bringing it home. There was a little nip in the air yesterday, but not too cold yet that we felt uncomfortable being outside, and the bar/restaurant that we chose even has branded wool blankets they offer to each outdoor party. We didn’t need to use ours, but it was a nice touch.
Anyway, over whiskey cocktails, we discussed a wide range of things – our experiences with ghosts and supernatural stuff (we’ve both lived in haunted houses), working for ourselves (she’s a photographer), and the effect the pandemic has had on women – women in the work force, mothers, wives. Last month alone, more than 300,000 women left the work force in the US – the largest drop-off since September of 2020. (Men, on the other hand, gained 220,000 positions.) One in three women is leaving the work force, many of them citing burnout as the leading cause for their departure.
For women who live with partners and/or have kids, that’s a whole lot of them who have joined the ranks that my friend and I have been in for many years: the main domestic manager of the household. For some, that may be a welcome shift (see: burnout) and for others, they may hope this change is only temporary (nearly two out of every three women who’ve left the work force plan to return). Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, there’s likely to be some feelings around the transition from full-time money-making labor to doing much more of the domestic kind of labor that one does not get paid for. (For many, I suspect it might just be the former that has changed and that the unpaid, domestic workload was always high, even when managing full-time work outside the home.)
My friend and I both have side businesses that bring in some money and let us financially contribute to the household, but mostly we are financially supported by our husbands, and for some women this can be a real spot of tension, discomfort, and even resentment that we grapple with in various ways. I’m among those women. I think my friend is too. We talked about what it means to have a culture that values the support the partner who earns an income provides versus the support the partner at home provides to the one who works full-time. But if you are a woman in a domestic relationship who has either recently made the transition to full-time or part-time unemployment or has been a longtime stay-at-homer, know that you are supporting your spouse as much as he or she supports you. In a culture that values a specific kind of labor – the labor that generates money – it can be really, really hard to embrace that idea and to see the value in the kind of labor that doesn’t generate money, but that labor is as necessary to keeping the wheels in the cog spinning as anything else. Arguably more necessary.
I’ve mentioned – just this week – how my income has been affected by the pandemic (I am currently making less than half of what I earned just before the pandemic began), and so I’ve been thinking more than usual about what it means to be mostly unpaid for my labor and how that affects my self-esteem, how that impacts my “value” and for whom it changes my value. That this is happening at the same time I’m entering middle-age (I turned 45 last month) has been especially interesting as so much of the way women in our society are valued is youth-based. Fortunately, I am married to someone who values me for me and not all the other bullshit. And I have a pretty healthy self-esteem. But even with those considerations, on my worst days, I think about how my value as a woman could be higher; I worry that I am not modeling for my kids the image of a woman who does more, is more, has more to offer. If I am thinking these things on occasion, I suspect others might be too.
It’s a battle, combatting cultural expectations and a value system that places a much higher appreciation on paid labor as well as on youth. People – even men – transition out of these categories – youth, paid labor earner – all the time. Aging will happen to all of us who are lucky to live long enough, and retirement is a normal life stage that, again, happens for anyone lucky enough to make that transition. These aren’t new transitions, but the pandemic has increased a collective shift to unemployment that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, and it has affected women far, far more than it has men, and at a time in our cultural history when women had finally achieved a status in the work force on par – or getting close to it – with men. The cultural reverberations of this shift will likely be felt for decades. The personal consequences, too, will be felt individually for many years – in ways that are good, bad, and very complicated for a lot of us. Are you among those whose work/income status has shifted over the past year and a half? How has it affected you?