I have screeds of notes for a review of Anne Marie Slaughter’s book, but no time to write it, which says it all huh? I saw that puff piece today, paperback is out, more publicity, and it made me think – done is better than perfect so let’s just chuck down some bullet points or write a series of small blogs.
I say, she says, everyone says that we don’t value care enough. The article closes with this quote:
“The bottom-line message,” she says, “is that we are never going to get to gender equality between men and women unless we value the work of care as much as we value paid work — or when both men and women do it.
“That’s the unfinished business.”
And, I have some thoughts, because I think this is actually a really complex issue and I want to unpack it a little bit.
There’s a slight of hand in saying that we need to value caring more without looking at what is on the other side of the ledger, looking at what is overvalued, and what specifically is undervalued. “Caring work” is an amorphous term. It involves the daily grunt work, packing lunches and pushing buggies and keeping calm when the kid hits another kid at the library, getting them bathed and to bed. That stuff is undervalued, but there’s more hiding behind it, and the hidden components of care are even less valued: in particular, connection and play and downtime. These are so thoroughly undervalued that some go so far as to doubt whether they’re necessary.
Downtime is when all the magic happens. Holidays, weekends, time that is unhurried and unscheduled, time that does what it wants. When I was back in the office, between babies, I had my lovely expansive afternoons with the little dude – picking him up at 3.30ish most days. One day we got home and the neighbour’s cat was on the roof. The little dude would have been around 18 months old. We watched that cat for almost an hour. He was entranced. He might not remember that, but I do, I’m keeping that memory for him. We watched that cat as it clambered round the roof, slipping in and out of view, and he laughed and he burbled away, pointing, “diddis!”. I remember it so clearly, I remember thinking – I am utterly glad that we get this time together, that I don’t have to hurry him down the stairs because he needs dinner soon.
Hey, how much is downtime valued in our world? Not so much eh.
Today I Skyped with my aunt in Vancouver (hiya!). When her twins were four they stayed with us for a little while and my brother and I, young teenagers, would take them to the park. I remember pushing them on the swings – two of them and two of us – the game was to try and get the swings to sync up so that the twins could reach out to each other. We must have played that game for hours and hours and hours.
I worked at a childcare centre most of the way through uni, one day a week during school terms, for four years. There was one girl who I was particularly fond of, she had this great purple corduroy jacket, and she was utterly fearless on the jungle gym, and the wickedest sense of humour. I looked forward to seeing her, my little mate.
I put the job on my CV when I was still at uni, applying for law jobs, and at an interview they said “that sounds like a fun job”, and I said, yeah, it was. I think now – wait, if they know how much fun it is to spend time with little kids, why are the hours so punishing for parents who work there?
Stop wasting time! Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive? Why are you lounging about? Don’t be lazy. Come on, don’t dawdle. We need to boost productivity. What is the most efficient solution? Did you know Steve Jobs used to wake up at 4.30am when his kids were little so that he could get work done before they got up? Top ten tips for busy mums and dads! Yeah, life’s good at the moment, pretty busy though.
What’s the rush?
What is so urgent that it can’t possibly wait?
You know what’s actually, genuinely, really important: spending time with loved ones. Especially children, because they grow up and change. It is shattering how quickly they change. I get a notification from the photo app to rediscover this day and whompf, I miss the little dude as he was this time last year. Sometimes I see those little snippets of video and I get an ache of longing to just hold him once more as he was then. The day it sent me the photo we took of the last breastfeed, oh my heart. Those soft damp curls. That still chubby body, my arms around his back.
It’s bad enough that we miss them when they’ve grown, it’s a brutal world where we miss them while they’re still here, because we’re too busy doing something that FEELS more urgent. And most of the time, that urgency is a myth, a pervasive, intensely damaging myth.
The jobs where things really are urgent, burnout is a huge risk, and this needs to be managed through shift work and staffing levels. You don’t want the paramedic working a 60 hour week! People could die!
In other areas, like law and policy which is the area of interest to Slaughter and also, um, me, the urgency is… not real. It’s manufactured urgency. Sound, durable policy arises from a robust assessment of whether anything needs to change in the first place, careful consideration of alternatives, and an iterative refinement that builds consensus and broad support. A culture of urgency undermines this process, and creates a ridiculous waste of resources. If you’re working long hours, you’re doing it wrong. What the hell are you playing at – we’ve been trying for centuries to figure out a just set of laws, are you really so arrogant as to think that you working a 55 hour week is going to make or break our system of government?
We need to be like little kids, asking the why for the why, scratching away to see what’s underneath, see what we’re really valuing. Because it looks to me like we’re valuing the state of being busy, for its own sake. We’re valuing a life without spare time. The term “spare time” is even slightly derogatory! Spare?! What’s spare about time? IT RUNS OUT. But hey, we should be so rushed every day that we don’t pause to remember our time on this planet is finite and every moment we don’t spend with people we love is a moment we can’t get back. Ouch. Fuck. Heavy shit eh.
On Friday a few weeks ago I picked the little dude up from creche at 4.30. (He goes two days a week now. Oh I’m so glad we can afford those two days so that bub gets a bit of actual attention, and so that the little dude gets the fun activities and gets to hang with his friends.) Buckle him in his carseat “where Daddy?” and I said “he’s at work”, and then he rattles off this long list of follow up enquiries, where Nana, where Dranddad, and so on – all the adults he knows! And I’m like “work, work, work, Auckland and also work, work, work, France and sleeping because it’s night there, Auckland, Auckland, work, work”.
It must be so weird from their perspective. I wonder what he thinks.