The Uncommon Man

July 27, 2006

Reproductive Labor - more than just giving birth

I recently heard a very insightful letter read on WAMC Northeast Public Radio. The letter was submitted by a woman named Wendy in response to The Roundtable Show’s poll question of the day concerning women, work and health.

The Roundtable’s producer and co-host, Susan Arbetter, was kind enough to forward the letter to me. Here it is:

Hi Susan & Joe,

In response to the poll question today on women, overwork and health: I, along with countless other women, resonate with this issue. I would like to move the conversation along in response to the agreement expressed between Susan and today's last caller that women are just worriers. I'd like to replace the concept of "worrying" (which sounds belittle-ish to me) and introduce a term used by historians of women: "reproductive labor." By that I mean more than just giving birth. I mean the work of reproducing families and societies. Setting aside the work of cleaning & maintaining homes for now, reproductive labor entails feeding people, maintaining their health (which includes caring for children and the sick and one's elders, making dental and hair care appointments for others and making sure they get to them), maintaining social networks (which includes remembering birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, going to weddings and funerals.)

Men can and often do many aspects of this work. But generally, in our society, women are in charge of this work. Often when men do any of the above-listed tasks, it is because it was delegated to them. But it is likely the woman who had it in her head (read: "worried about it") first.

Reproductive labor is vital to the reproduction of the labor force, of families, and of civil society. Much would collapse around us if this work were not done. It is not paid work, and it is done in, around and between the work women do for money. When you throw in a crisis, such as a lost job or other economic disaster, a divorce or a death, or a family member with an addiction, a deadly illness, mental illness, or a degenerative condition, the woman in charge of overseeing the health of everyone in that family takes on enormous stress.

In light of all this, it is really not a surprise that women who work not only for money but for extra hours are perhaps more driven than men are to overuse caffeine, over-eat, and find it extremely difficult to get exercise and other health-promoting practices done for themselves.

One of the things I have learned over the years of being a woman who takes her reproductive labor seriously, and who also works for money, is that although it is counter-intuitive, care of one's own health is necessary. Precisely when it seems like one can least afford the time for a bath, a walk, a healthy meal, or that dental appointment, is just the time when it is needed. I have learned to trust that I am not in charge of everything and that if I 'stop the world' and get off for a while to take care of myself, I am better able to do all the kinds of work that matter to me, both paid and unpaid. Easier said than done. But learning the hard way a few times has shown me the truth in this, and motivated me. I do take the walk, the bath, the time to talk to a friend, an early bedtime, or even a breakfast out so someone can bring me food for a change.

I really believe you should do an in-depth feature on this. It belongs outside the confines of a show like "51 per cent" (though I love that show). It belongs in the mainstream of conversation. What do you think?


Posted by Daniel at July 27, 2006 10:45 AM


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