Here is social reproduction: on getting to see your colleagues’ kids on Zoom and the real costs of labor

One of the most significant moments of my undergraduate education was in a lecture in a Sociology of Religion course. It was one sentence, just an aside:

We know the work women do in their homes is work, because if you want someone else to do it you have to pay them money.

And with that, I understood the world differently.

Parents love their children, but they also have to take care of them, in so many little ways.  And this labor – from cooking meals to wiping tushies – falls disproportionately to women. Are there men that do household work, and even do a lot of it? Sure. I live with one. But women do not receive the same accolades for those efforts. My partner and I used to joke that he would get public applause from strangers for just walking down the street with the baby while I would be, at best, ignored.

In the past few years, articles have been circulating on the internet about “mental load,” or the work that occupies so much of our minds in a low hum underneath all the other work: keeping a running mental grocery list, making sure there are materials around for costumes and science projects, knowing where that one thing is in the cabinet. This too falls mainly to women.

One term for the sum of these tasks is ‘reproductive labor.’ This term is a feminist rejoinder to coarse Marxism, an economic analysis of society that takes as the prototype for labor: what men do on the factory floor. The scholars who analyze reproductive labor demonstrate the ways in which the men in the factories (or other places of work) rely on labor unaccounted for in this analysis.

This other labor includes maintaining the household, laundry, cooking, child and elder care — and it is fundamental to doing paid work, which in turn is legitimized in capitalist economies by virtue of the pay itself. Furthermore, the factory laborers ostensibly can unionize and fight for better conditions, while those people performing the reproductive labor – let’s call them women – are delegitimized as laborers because of the normative notion that they are doing all that vacuuming for the love of their families. In turn, there is no real fight for better conditions that can be won. (Yes, this is an oversimplification. Fight me.)

This reproductive labor situation is what my professor was talking about: We know the work women do in their homes is work, because if you want someone else to do it you have to pay them money.

Now, in the era of COVID-19, we are seeing this labor, in some ways that are widely visible and in other ways that continue to be minimized, shrunken, disappeared. In my own line of work as a professor, academic journals are reporting (surprise!) that women are submitting far fewer papers, both in number (few to none) and in proportion to their male colleagues (who are submitting very many). Wacky stories abound, of children yelling during online meetings, I have a poop! or My dolly is very hungry and needs a cookie right now! It’s charming, almost, as children wander into the screen, or wrap primate-like around their mothers’ bodies as their mothers try to compose and launch a thought into the gridded screen of faces.

Maybe it’s a gift of this moment: to see for an instant the real conditions under which so many women operate, certainly amplified at this moment of crisis, but always present, unceasing.

And that’s just what we can see, or record. On the screen and in the stats, we do not see the sink constantly re-filled with dishes, the shopping list that leaves no room for error, the home-schooling efforts, the guilt about screen time. This hidden labor is showing up in women’s lives, and it will continue to show up after we have stopped sheltering in our homes, because some great number of us will emerge exhausted, tattered at the seams, unready to return to ‘normal’ because normal wasn’t working in the first place.

One woman-friend tells me she must ask her husband for work hours – that is, hours to complete her own non-household work – each day; I describe this to a man-friend and he says he fears he has put his wife in the same position. Another woman tells me her full-time job’s work is “just more family friendly” than her husband’s, so she does the lion’s share of the home labor. Yet another says when she finally gets to her desk, the words just freeze up – she is too worn out from all the childcare to remember her own thoughts. Many women talk about how they take on the household labor because their partner’s work pays more, three times as much in some cases. No one mentions that, at the hourly rate for paid domestic labor, the women would fall even farther behind.

As I write, some little voice in me says: there’s a pandemic on. There’s no school or daycare, for anyone. You are describing the households of your peers that are still bringing in a paycheck. Do we really need more ink spilled on the plight of straight married women working comfortably from home, albeit slowly, and having their groceries delivered?

I am here to say that the answer is yes. Because we need to talk about all the labor. The labor that is the way we spend our days, compensated or not. The labor that reinforces the gender divide, the pay gap, the small ways in which the work we all depend on is devalued over and over.

We must talk about the labor of the professor, and the labor of the nurse, and we must talk about the dangerous labor of the grocery store worker (who is also maybe a parent), and the fact that she likely does not earn a living wage. She does not earn a wage that allows her to survive even though her hours are spent organizing the shelves and selling the food that allow the rest of us to live. And we must talk about the labor of maintaining a household, the cost of that, the deep need to make our homes safe and comfortable during a terrifying pandemic. And we need to talk about how those often-loving, but also uncompensated hours tending to care and cleaning limit the other ways women can spend their time.

The money economy is mostly shut. The labor economy continues.