Domestic Work is Real Work

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Yesterday morning I awoke to find that my partner had filled and run the dishwasher as I slept. There was nothing unusual in that. Sadly, my response was not unusual either: I felt simultaneously surprised that he had thought to do the dishes and guilty that I had not done them myself. Like most of us, I have internalized the sexist and ableist convictions that domestic labor is both mine to do, and yet does not count as “real work”. The daily struggle to overcome these beliefs is a much greater challenge than I could have anticipated when I became chronically ill.

My partner and I divide domestic chores. We also verbally acknowledge that household work is real work by giving due appreciation: “what a nice clean kitchen”, he’ll say. Or I will say, “Hey—the kitchen looks great!” But I don’t say, “Thank you for cleaning the kitchen”, because it’s just too close to what I still feel—“Thank you for cleaning the kitchen for me”.

Now that I live with chronic illness, I can feel the cost of domestic labor; it’s taken out of my hide, as my grandmother would have put it. I studied my spoon theory (PDF) first-hand. I should be way ahead of those whose understanding is limited by chronic wellness. But sometimes I still find myself surrounded by homemade food and freshly washed clothes and lamenting, “I haven’t done anything today!”

In addition to being BADD, today is also International Workers’ Day. It is fitting, therefore, to think not only about the work we do, but also about who gets the privilege of being counted as a worker and why.

As Melissa pointed out recently, work coded as “women’s” is devalued, often to the point of being unpaid, no matter who is doing it. Our entire economic system depends not only on domestic labor, but also upon its devaluation and exclusion from the realm of “productive” work. To paraphrase Maria Mies, women’s unpaid household work subsidizes not only the male wage but also capital accumulation (Patriarchy And Accumulation On A World Scale, p. ix).

Unpaid domestic work takes just as much energy as wage work, yet because it is not considered productive labor, we can’t “count” it towards our status as productive individuals. So those who are too ill to work outside the home for a paycheck are unproductive by definition, regardless of how much they get done. Furthermore, the self-care that is so essential to managing chronic conditions is valued even less than the ongoing care of others*. Our most vital work is society's least esteemed.

The work we do to support the wellbeing of ourselves, our families, and our dwellings is real work. Asserting that truth is not only a feminist act, but an anti-disablist one as well. It is an ongoing struggle for me; one which I don't have the privilege of ignoring.

N.B.: Like many chronic illness narratives, this story has no nice tidy bow on the end (“and that’s how I learned to value my work and take care of myself—see how illness turns out to be a blessing?”). So many voices are silenced because they don’t fit into the framework of struggle and redemption that we’re comfortable with. Telling our stories as they are, ragged edges and all, is in itself a radical act.
*And the problem is compounded for those who require help even for self-care.

BADD commenting note from the QCoFM herself: While all of us understand the urge to share recommendations and personal experiences, "helpful suggestions" can sometimes be counterproductive and inadvertently imply that a chronically ill or disabled person has not educated themselves about their own condition. It can also effectively diminish the seriousness of a condition if you draw comparisons between temporary conditions (taking Aspirin for a headache) and long-term or permanent conditions (giving oneself insulin shots for diabetes management). We request that any comments sharing something that has worked for you or someone you know be framed very carefully as "This has what has worked for me," not only because nothing works for everybody, but also because framing it as a personal experience story takes away any implicit exhortation that "you, too, should do this," which may create anxiety for people reading along and/or the author. Thank you for your consideration and happy commenting!

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