Life happens. Babies are born. Loved ones fall ill. We move across the country or across borders to be with our significant others. Often times when these things happen, someone is burdened or blessed with staying home to take care of things. More often than not, the responsibility of caring for children or adults, keeping house, or even caring for animals falls to women.
Domestic labor is often taken for granted when everyone is well and working in a household. Responsibilities are dispersed among the household (at least in theory) or left to the wayside. When one person is responsible for caretaking, cleaning, and/or cooking the true price of domestic labor becomes evident to them. It is relentless, often thankless, and it pays shit.
So let’s break down what domestic labor actually costs. Let’s say you’re a caretaker for an ill loved one. You are taking on the responsibilities of caretaking, light housework, and cooking. Even at just 6 days a week (as opposed to what is likely 7), and 10-12 hours a day at minimum federal wage, that is $1,740 – $2,088 a month, or $20-25,000 a year, that is given away for free.
That’s astronomical. What other service worth that much is given away for free? Stay at home parents, who are overwhelmingly mothers, are a big example. A stay at home mother is working at least 16 hour days, 7 days a week. The average childcare worker makes $10.18 an hour. Housekeepers make a median wage of $10.49 an hour. A private cook makes a median wage of $15.42 an hour. Let’s say mama is spending 2 hours a day cooking, 2 hours cleaning, and 12 hours of active childcare. She is giving away $4,871.44 worth of labor a month and over $58,000 worth a year.
All of this ignores the intangible opportunity cost. The wage gap is often about women losing out on promotions and seniority because they have to leave work (both in the sense of leaving early and months off) to take care of loved ones. Not to mention the mental exhaustion of constantly caring for others and perhaps the stress of knowing how your career may be damaged.
Why do women bear this cost? How do we fix it? Women likely fall into this role because it was consistently their only option until about 50 years ago. The expectation is that women take care of their families. Women and men are guilty of this. When is the last time, as a woman, you questioned why you were going to call in sick to work to stay home with a sick child instead of your husband/boyfriend? On the flip side, when is the last time you heard a father praised for “babysitting” his sick kids? That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s certainly not the norm.
Women can stop bearing the burden of domestic labor when we change societal expectations, provide better healthcare, and more affordable childcare options. If we stop expecting women to do all the domestic work, then maybe it will be more likely that men will share in it. If we provide better (and more affordable) healthcare, maybe loved ones wouldn’t be as ill or would have access to a professional to care for them. If childcare was more affordable, fewer women (like me) would be faced with the decision of either staying home with children or working solely to pay for childcare. So in essence, we have to start valuing domestic labor for what it’s worth, and stop allowing one gender to take on nearly all that responsibility. We condemn unpaid internships and non-living wages, so why do we tolerate over half the population working for free?
Photo Credit: Sonia Leong