The Thinker: A Woman’s Work

By webadmin on 09:01 am Dec 23, 2011
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Santi Dharmaputra

I once had a conversation with a friend who said that motherhood is not a job. According to him, an activity is rightly viewed as a job only if the person who does it receives payment in return. As a mother is not paid for her work of caretaking, she is thus without occupation.

In “The Price of Motherhood,” author Ann Crittenden shows just how widespread this view is. Society sees a soldier sitting eight hours a day in a missile silo as usefully employed, but a mother caring for two preschoolers as lacking a “real” job. Similarly, a homemaker’s language and music instruction to her children is not a job, while a teacher doing the same at school is.

Some of my other friends say that with so many domestic helpers around, most housewives in big Indonesian cities do not deal with household work anymore. They see these women as spending their time for leisure only — that is, consuming without producing.

But as noted by motherhood expert Andrea O’Reilly in her 2010 essay “Outlawing Motherhood,” the mental work of scheduling, remembering, worrying, planning, anticipating, orchestrating and coordinating the house often is still done mostly, if not solely, by the mother. Yet the perception that homemakers are “just staying home” or “not working” continues because none of these tasks falls under conventional economic output categories, and are therefore excluded from such calculations as gross domestic product (GDP).

And yet a wide body of research suggests that, in the United States for example, the hidden value of a homemaker’s work can be valued at $30,000 a year, with some studies even putting the total at the bombastic figure of $500,000 a year. Further, a 1997 study by the World Health Organization revealed that maternal mortality in 45 countries in Africa translated into GDP losses of annual purchasing power parity of $49,000 per capita, or a total lifetime loss of almost $1.5 million. This is due to the services that mothers often provide: nurturing, socializing and educating children; producing household food; nursing the sick; and caring for elderly family members.

The absence of such care hugely affects the nutritional status, physical and cognitive development of future generations, thus jeopardizing a country’s human capital. Simply put, society could not function if it depended on paid work alone.

Unfortunately, although a household is often headed by an adult male and female, it is the wife who performs most of the unpaid work. Crittenden shows that even when a husband earns less than half of the family income or is unemployed, he will typically contribute to no more than 30 percent of domestic tasks and childcare. By contrast, when a married woman stays home, she does 75 percent of the domestic work.

The inferior status accorded a homemaker prevails because of the low percentage of women holding executive positions across society, which makes their voices and interests underrepresented. In its 2007 report on Indonesia, a working group under the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) showed there were only 65 women in the House of Representatives among 485 men; eight female Supreme Court judges among 41 males, and 63 high-ranking women among 582 men in civil services. Party this is due to the patriarchy model. A 2010 study by the US consulting group McKinsey showed that despite the evidence of better corporate performance resulting from gender diversity in senior management, women withdraw from their careers or quit altogether because the highly demanding executive lifestyle collides with motherhood.

I am convinced that elevating homemaking status and unlocking women’s potential in Indonesia can be reached only if we think outside the box of kodrat (nature’s destiny).

Julia Suryakusuma, in her book “Sex, Power and Nation,” describes how the New Order regime included kodrat in its ideology to relegate women to domestic work tanpa pamrih (without expecting anything in return), thus maintaining their dependency on their husbands.

If the mind-set on kodrat changes, the obligations of raising children would be shared equally between fathers and mothers, allowing women with talent the opportunity to excel in their professions. At the same time, homemakers would come to understand that their unpaid work at home is in fact economically valuable. They would be able to see themselves as equal partners and be empowered to renegotiate domestic responsibilities with their husbands.

The goal would be to one day recognize domestic work as a “real” job — one perhaps even worthy of inclusion in GDP.

Santi Dharmaputra is an independent researcher, writer and mother based in Sydney.