I’m tired. In a very different way than I usually am. Instead of creating words, marketing myself, pitching and polishing, I am doing one thing. Parenting.
I am perfectly aware that there are people that do this with multiple children, for much longer than I have, and that have far less support than I do. While mine is financial more than familial, it means that I am able to use some form of ‘a village’ to raise my child, even if I have to pay them to do it. So my time is far freer than some.
It’s exhausting. Partly because she is so small and still follows me everywhere, even when I take a dirty sock to the washing bin. She is joyous and exhilarating and fascinating and infuriating all at the same time. When every moment is spent in a watchful state, a state of care and consideration, everything else is forgotten. It’s a triumph if I have a shower this week. And I am not alone.
There are so many people who, behind closed doors, give up a huge amount of their time to care for others. At least as a mother I have some standing, some recognition. I still don’t get payment or much in the way of thanks but I do get a host of people shouting about what I’m doing. For those who take care of elderly relatives, for the young people who take care of their parents or other people in their family, it’s less so.
I wonder if part of it is a difficulty in identifying what it looks like. Ask a parent of a small baby what they did all day and they will inevitably say, ‘nothing.’ Yet perhaps the truth is that they did ‘nothing’ that people consider valuable, or ‘nothing’ that is immediately obvious in terms of its effects.
As a teacher I could say that I had taught a certain number of classes, marked a certain number of assessments, submitted some data. People go to meetings, stock shelves, clean floors, serve food, all things that can be quantified in terms of the hours spent and the goals achieved. Even if the job is insufferably dull (my ‘lowlights’ were stuffing envelopes and putting sprinkles on cakes in factories) then you can at least look at how many hours you did as proof of time spent doing something useful.
What then, for those who fed, bathed and clothed another person? For those who read books, played games, went for walks? Simply had conversations with others to make them feel better? In our current times we are noticing more than ever the amount of care everyone needs. The impact of that care is far-reaching and life-altering. It certainly isn’t ‘nothing.’
So why am I talking about money? People say things like, ‘you can’t put a price on love,’ or, ‘it’s the most fulfilling job in the world.’ This slightly misses the point that wiping someone else’s poo (old or young) is not exactly a priceless activity, nor that caring is repetitive and tiring. Seeing as we live in a world that assigns ‘value’ to things through money, what message are we giving the parents and carers of this world when we tell them that what they are doing is financially useless?
If others are asked to help with this caring – home help, nurses, childminders, carers, nursery – it is given value and status because you have to pay for it. If you do it yourself it is free and, by implication, worthless.
I listened to a Woman’s Hour on BBC4 where an economist talked (I apologise for this vague memory. The message stuck but the details of who it was did not) about how Universities failed at teaching economics because they started with business, with money. Without the economy of care, she said, everything else would collapse. Without unpaid parenting, unpaid caring, unpaid care of the elderly and all the minute things that go in between (looking after a household with those million tiny tasks), there would be no-one to build the glass towers of industry. It is the soft tendons between things that people seem to forget about, without which the sturdy bones of business would flail around uselessly. Without care, no-one survives.
I’m sure I will continue to find being the primary carer of a child a maddening combination of enjoyable and dull, heart-warming and mind-numbing. She is adorable but sometimes (especially when she follows me to the toilet) I just wish I could hide away for a couple of hours. Next week will come and she will be in nursery and I will miss her. The emotional tug-of-war between wanting her here and wanting someone else to take care of her will continue.
This week, forgive my rambling. I’ve spent too long in toddler-land and have stacked my thoughts together in an incoherent jumble. But one thing is clear. People who provide care should be afforded a much higher status. I hope that our difficult times allow us to look to those people and value them for every moment they spend invested in others.
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