Essays & Confessions/Work/Life Balance

How Tracking 76 Hours Of Unpaid Labor Helped Me Rediscover My Self-Worth

By | Tuesday, June 04, 2019

In The Multi-Hyphen Method, British writer and podcaster Emma Gannon talks about seeing work in a new way. Rather than one full-time role in a set career path, she talks about creating a career working the hours you want across multiple roles that fuel your interests and your passions. You’ll be busy, sure, but you’ll earn more, have more time overall and be more fulfilled. I believe her. There are plenty of people out there getting it done, and it looks like they’re having a brilliant time.

Of course, there’s a group of multi-hyphenates who’ve been around forever. I joined their ranks 18 months ago. We are mothers, and we often work hard for no money and less time. Brilliant! But we do get to hang out with tiny humans, who are just the best. The one who lives with me is funny and clever and completely infatuated with the world around her. She makes me feel that way, too. The other day, we stood still in the street to look at a bird. It was the highlight of a pretty great day. The world is amazing. Sometimes it takes a toddler to remind you of that.

When I was pregnant, I knew I was going back to work. It wasn’t even a question. But, for various good reasons, including an international move, I left my job and, a year and a half later, I haven’t returned to work. I’m an accidental stay-at-home mom. And honestly, I’ve been having trouble owning that.

I’m privileged to be able to be at home with my daughter. My husband’s salary covers our expenses, and we have everything we need. We are lucky, and I don’t take that for granted. What I’ve been wrestling with, though, is the financial guilt of not earning.

I thought I’d feel guilty if I returned to work and, by opting out, expected to avoid feeling that way. But guilt has cropped up in other ways. I wasn’t bringing in any money, and that made me feel ashamed. But I was contributing a lot of my time, which I’ve realized is just as valuable.

There’s a book coming out this year called Fair Play. Written by Eve Rodsky, it’s about the unpaid, invisible work women do, and how we view men’s time as finite but women’s as infinite. It introduces a new system for sharing domestic labor, how families can balance the load and how individuals can fully own the responsibilities we do take on in the home. This got me thinking about my own responsibilities and time spent at home. I was wading through the motherhood paradox — busy all day, but with nothing to show for it except for the guilt of not having done enough. I needed some data.

For one week, I tracked every task I did related to home and childcare. I created a simple spreadsheet, listing every task each day in one column, the time it took in the next column and allocating a category in the third column. I had “home” categories covering cooking, cleaning, and laundry. It also covered things like planning; meals, trips out, holidays, etc. I had “childcare” categories, as well as “family and friends” categories for things like sending birthday cards and arranging meet-ups.

That week, I completed 76 hours of work for free. That’s almost double the hours of a full-time job in the U.K. (where I live) or the U.S. I clocked in over 60 hours of childcare and 15 hours of cooking and cleaning. I analyzed my tasks against job descriptions online and identified, in Emma Gannon’s terms, my “hyphens”: nanny-executive chef-PA-housekeeper. Using average hourly pay for each of these roles, I calculated that the hours I worked would equate to earnings of £1,132.98 ($1,435.75). For the week.

As adults, we all need to own the tasks that go into looking after a home, a family, and ourselves. We need to eat. We need a clean place to live. We need people around us that we love. These things take work. But this work is done disproportionately by women — and there’s a financial penalty that comes with it.

I’m a stay-at-home mum right now; my contribution is measured in hours, not dollars, and my reward is not financial. That’s my choice. But I made it in the context of a system not built for me. For women, the financial penalty continues into the workplace, where the gender pay gap persists and mothers are seen as less committed to their work even while fathers are seen as more responsible. Undervalued, underpaid caring roles are largely filled by women, who care for others during their employment hours and then return home to continue to perform caring roles, only this time for free. There’s an imbalance in our society. We undervalue the basic care that we all need to thrive. I don’t know how to fix that. But I know we need to make a change.

Tracking the work I do at home helped me to rediscover my self-worth and to respect my time. Every hour that’s going into yet another load of laundry is an hour that’s not going into playing with my daughter or pursuing my own interests. Every minute that goes into cleaning and cooking is a minute that’s not being invested in my marriage. It’s frustrating. The urgent crowds out the important every day. But taking the small steps towards understanding the value that I bring into my own home created a big change in my perception. By knowing exactly where I’m putting my time, I can reassess how I’m allocating my day and start trying to find a better balance.

Looking at motherhood through a professional lens — putting a financial value on it — helped me quiet the guilt that was becoming overwhelming. I have the data to answer my inner critic that accuses me of not making a contribution. My financial contribution to my home and family is small right now, but my overall contribution is huge. I’m proud of that. If you’re a multi-hyphenate mum and you’re struggling, why not track your hours for a week? It’ll help you to see your work in a new way, to identify what you want to change, and to appreciate the value you add to the world, too.

Rachel Berry is a writer, editor, ex-expat, tea drinker, and tennis watcher. She lives with her husband and daughter in Edinburgh, UK.

Image via Unsplash

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