Discover more from Disco Dialogues
How we define work
Q: What do you do?
These past two years of the pandemic have made a lot of us rethink how we define work. As our homes turned into our offices and in many cases, classrooms for our kids, we all took on additional roles. Unfortunately reports show that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic - either forced to reduce their work hours or to leave their jobs. In the US, Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, started a national movement - The Marshall Plan for Moms - to address the challenges faced by women in the workforce. It is a plan advocating for paid family leave, affordable child care, and pay-equity policies. Let’s hope we’ll soon live in a world where women are not always forced to make such tough choices.
This week we invite a dear aunt and mentor to share her dialogue. Reena is an economist, investment banker, professor, mother and became a grandma during the pandemic. She shares her perspective on how we should define work and encourages us to ask better questions.
Grandmother hood at any time is an adventure, during a global Pandemic it is an adventure on steroids.
I have two adorable granddaughters both born during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Before I talk about my personal promotion, may I share a pet peeve from my professional self? I feel quite enraged and even offended when people ask me what I do? The question ends there. I know they mean to ask what I do to make a living but it's rarely asked that way. More often, it is a question about where I work? Do I work? Of course I do, I am working on looking after my granddaughters. I sing, dance and play with them. Sometimes feed them when they are hungry, change them when they need to be changed, burp them, nap them, soothe them and by golly that is a lot of work! It's work that I do unpaid but please don’t tell me that it isn’t work. You see, work has a funny connotation. If you do it without remuneration, then it's probably not work. However, if you do it for the monies, it's likely you don’t enjoy it enough, else why would you need to be paid? It's an abhorrent thought for a grandmother to be paid although my daughter would pay me her entire salary and then some.
I am an economist and I have been looking for a simple yet elegant and all encompassing equation to address this conflation of work-life balance. Not in an economist’s utilitarian way, where the opposite of work is unpaid leisure (more on that in a subsequent article).
So why do we work? What work is not work? If time is money, is work money too? To get to where I want to be requires a cultural change first. Let’s start with the question, where do you work? If asked, gently correct the asker by paraphrasing the question back to them. Tell them that they actually mean to ask “what do you do to make a living”? Applying this to my own tiny universe today, I would answer thus, “my husband makes our living” and “I look after our lives”. Now that sounds fair to me. My pre-pandemic response would’ve been, “I work in an investment bank” and “I work at home”.
As for my elegant equation, I am still struggling with that and welcome your input.
The question that spins about in my head is how can something so fundamental to our survival as a species, i.e. childcare be so underappreciated, poorly compensated and misunderstood. Is becoming a parent really all life and no work?
A lot has changed in the last 50 years. My mother, 86 years old, a college graduate in her days didn’t make a living. Her husband, my father did. She looked after six lives. Their work-life balance was of a different sort. As a child, to me it seemed balanced enough until his sudden and untimely death. I was twelve years old. Old enough to feel my mother’s burden, to be fearful for our futures but not old enough to make a living, to make up for the lost wages. For my mother, there was probably no time to grieve. She was still responsible for five lives and she went to “work” right away. She worked on consolidating savings and pension plans, applying for school scholarships on our behalf and cutting down on discretionary expenses. To even think that she never “worked” a day in her life is offensive to me. All her hard “work” has enabled me to sit here comfortably and write. It’s a luxury.
While my mother never gave herself the option of ‘making a living’, I grew up in 1980s India with a fork in my road. We had a woman as our Prime Minister who set the tone for our country. I could keep studying till I got married or I could make a living outside the home. A series of happy incidents ensured my fork was not really a fork – it was a spoon. I was able to scoop up my marriage and fold it into my ‘work’ outside the home and take a huge, big bite and yes sometimes it was more than I could chew. Moved countries and continents with a four-year old in tow. Till then, my mother-in-law had practically raised my daughter while I was out making a living. Having moved countries, I found myself making a living and a life and trying very hard to hold it altogether. It was one step, two step, three step, four – the steps always felt as if they were taking me forward. I never questioned my role as the main caretaker for my daughter. I would like to think my husband thinks the same but I’ll let him write his own story.
Then came 2020 and the Pandemic and the birth of my first granddaughter. I found I was at that fork again except this time it was really a fork. If I continued to make a living, my daughter might have had to give up hers. Childcare, already scarce and very contested, was impossible to find. We had come a long way - my daughter was never raised to see a fork in her road. She could have it all. She must have it all.
However, soothing little souls and nurturing them to be good, civically responsible, generous and kind human beings is not considered work because it doesn’t pay or pay enough! There are many, many more women that have stayed up nights, slept on couches, paced in garages not very dissimilar to the celebrated CEOs and entrepreneurs. Let’s think about that!
I have a dream that one day while I am still alive, there will be true equality among all human beings. OK, maybe that is too lofty, but surely, I can dream about changing the meaning of “work” to be all-inclusive. In other words, if you are not sitting on your couch staring into nothingness, you are “working”! You get what I mean. So let’s start with asking the right question.