I read an article today in the New Zealand Herald lamenting the lack of respect given to stay at home mums. New Zealand’s centre right government is working its way towards an overhaul of the social welfare system that focuses on shoving people off benefits into paid work. There are lots of problems with this approach in my opinion. It assumes that people are malingering on benefits, lying around eating bonbons instead of doing an honest day’s work. It assumes that there are jobs available for all despite the still-shaky state of the local (and international) economy. It assumes that paid work is the highest good for everyone. It ignores the fact that most people don’t want to be on a benefit and only find themselves requiring one because of some sort of crisis – marriage breakdown, ill-health, redundancy, etc, etc. And, it focuses on money as the sole determinant of the value of people’s contributions to their society.
As Tapu Misa points out:
In New Zealand, paid work (no matter how badly paid or insecure) dominates the conversation, while unpaid work remains invisible and undervalued. Yet, as Professor Ruth Lister, a social policy expert from the UK, told a Melbourne conference recently, “We all need care at some stage of our lives, and care involves time-consuming work that is all too often hidden and ignored. What does it say about a society that accords so much less value to caring for young children or older and frail people than trading in derivatives or hosting a chat show?”
This attitude isn’t confined only to the makers of public policy. I encounter puzzled or patronising people who either can’t understand how anyone could stay at home without going insane, or who make it clear that working is superior to not working.
And, in some ways they’re right – staying at home with a toddler or two is a test of anyone’s sanity. Parenting can be lonely, boring, infuriating, and exhausting. And, I at least, find myself sometimes doubting whether I’m productive and whether I’m achieving anything in my life.
In other ways they’re totally, utterly wrong. Parenting is a job, and a job, furthermore, that’s enormously valuable and rewarding, both for the individual family and for the community as a whole. It would be wonderful if public policy and the wider society recognised this.