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Erika Christakis Headshot

Earning My Keep: Unpaid Labor is Still Work

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Oh, the luxury of being ignorant and sanctimonious. There are so many problems with Elizabeth Wurtzel's article (which was based on Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article on why women still can't have it all) but I'll start with her assumption that:

"If you can't pay your own rent, you're not an adult."

Wurtzel explains further, 'Let's please be serious grown-ups: Real feminists don't depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money, and a means of their own... something becomes a job when you are paid for it -- and until then, it's just a part of life."

I am so unbelievably tired of people who pretend that unpaid labor doesn't count. It matters and we need to do a better job of quantifying it and talking about it. Unpaid labor helps to supports families and the communities they live in, it supports industry and it props up the global economy in myriad ways just as surely as the wage-earning jobs do.

I'd love to know what Elizabeth Wurtzel finds so infantile about providing child care, providing elder care and providing volunteer work to keep families and communities chugging along. Let's forget about the mommy wars for a moment -- Ms. Wurtzel certainly has nothing to say about dads -- and look at the economics of being one of those not 100 percent financially self-supporting women she dismisses, ridiculously, as parasitic throwbacks.

There were years when I was under or unemployed, and yet even in my most financially 'dependent' state, there were plenty of folks whose monetary well-being depended on me. Starting with my husband. My particular work -- family care, teaching, school consulting, writing -- has always been movable, so my husband has always accepted the best job offers without worrying about collateral damage to his spouse. This economic edge I've given him has in turn enabled him to support a platoon of other wage earners (and those free-riders Wurtzel finds so distasteful).

But, there's more. And it's not only the hours of childcare and cleaning, shopping and cooking. That's just shooting fish in a barrel. (And yes, sue me, I had some help with these tasks, too.) I'm thinking of the committees and boards and fundraisers that relied on my unpaid, exceedingly flexible labor. I'm thinking of the 1:1 ratio of teacher prep to class time and the endless hours of parent counseling and hand-holding I performed that was never reflected in my salary as an early childhood educator and school director. I'm also thinking of all the other parents' kids for whom I provided childcare when they were stuck in a pinch and, of course, the shoe has been on the other foot many times when I was working full-time for pay. I'm not complaining and I'm grateful for others' support. (But let's not pretend for a nano-second that the paid laborers are pulling their weight outside their immediate families.)

And don't forget the American companies for whom unpaid moms have shilled over the years, organizing all those crappy book fairs and elementary school wrapping paper sales, just doing our measly part to prop up the public school system's inadequate operating budget (keeping taxes nice and low so you can go out and earn your independence, Elizabeth Wurtzel!) but also, inadvertently, serving as wage-free hacks on the sales force for the Scholastic Book Fair and Sally Foster Wrapping Paper, Inc.!

What about the untold hours of counseling and errands I've performed, gratis, to people in my community over the years, the many students who've come to my house and lived with my family for weeks, even months at a time... the emotional support I simply wouldn't have been able to muster for people beyond my immediate family and close friends had I been employed at full tilt, full-time?

And why is that, exactly? Because unlike the bona fide multi-taskers writing articles about women's lives, I'm not coyly pretending to be a laggard while secretly leveraging companies and writing books and sheltering orphans. The truth is this: I don't have boundless energy; I'm not "always on the go"; I don't "thrive under pressure" and I don't get more done when I have a ton of deadlines. I'm just a normally competent person who only has a certain amount of physical and emotional energy to deliver and who sometimes finds the tasks of adult life a bit much.

I've never made a decent living: The market has 'spoken' loudly about the relative merits of my teaching and non-profit jobs. Fortunately, I can afford to pay my family's bills with my intermittently crummy wages because -- let's really drive this home, folks -- I depend on my husband. I am a dependent. And thus: I am a big loser in Ms. Wurtzel's myopic world view that won't allow for the possibility that my partner is also dependent on me, the possibility of interdependence between two consenting adults. And my apparent loserishness is a problem for the peevish Ms. Elizabeth Wurtzel, who is making her financially independent way in the world in part by telling me that I'm a worthless child, because I'm not only a drain on the economy but evidently also bringing other women down -- by making men think we're all stupid, she tell us from all those pesky manicures and whatnot:

When it's come up, I have chosen not to get married," she explains without a hint of self-awareness. "Over and over again, I have opted for my integrity and independence over what was easy or obvious. And I am happy. I don't want everyone to live like me, but I do expect educated and able-bodied women to be holding their own in the world of work.

I am, thank you, and so are most of the world's underpaid and unpaid women. Too bad you can't see how dependent we all really are.