Unpaid work is still work: Why is labour outside the home supposedly more valuable?

Nancy Payne Headshot in front of bookcase

By Nancy Payne

Nancy is the associate editor of, and a regular contributor to, the Advocate. She is a freelance magazine editor, writer and communication consultant who lives between Lindsay and Dunsford.

Unpaid work is still work: Why is labour outside the home supposedly more valuable?

I remember wondering why my mother felt so strongly about it. Every year we brought home the same information sheet from school to be filled out. And every year she insisted that the line for her occupation be completed with the word “homemaker,” rather than what we kids would have written, “housewife.”

The line for my dad was easy—“farmer”—even if the work wasn’t. My mother grew a huge garden, drove the tractor, and fed pigs and cattle when my dad was away on municipal council business, along with looking after kids and the house. Obviously she was a partner on the farm, and obviously she was irreplaceable. So why did that one word matter so much to her? Well, I get it now.

Columnist Nancy Payne.

After all, the word housewife connotes someone who is married to a building. (Yes, I’m aware that the word has its roots in the Middle English “hus” (house) and “wyf,” meaning “woman.”) Someone whose role is bounded by four walls and a roof, not to mention a lot of toilets to be cleaned. And even though on paper my mum may have appeared to be the definition of a traditional wife and mother, like so many women of her generation and before, that doesn’t begin to tell you everything about her.

She did indeed make a home for our family of six, with all the tedious, never-ending work that involved: vacuuming, dishes, laundry (dried on a clothesline, even in winter), errands, cooking three meals every day, driving kids to practices and lessons and work. So yes, first of all: Work at home is work. Hard work. It’s honourable and crucial and our society would fall apart if it weren’t done. Many of us recognize the rallying cry “Every mother is a working mother,” even if we’d now substitute the word “parent” for “mother.”

Largely because of my mum’s example, I feel a quiet rage any time someone dismisses a woman who stayed home with kids by saying “she never worked.” Are you kidding me? If you want to make that distinction, for heaven’s sake add “outside the home.” Because trust me—that woman worked.

And chances are good that, like my mum Genevieve Payne, she actually did work outside the home, too, doing everything from creating girls’ hockey and softball teams to serving at community dinners. She just didn’t do it for pay. Whether they had a salary or not, the women who came before us worked all the time, weaving the social fabric we take for granted now.

Meals on Wheels was started by a group of women at Cambridge Street United Church who saw a need and got to work, cooking meals in the church kitchen while their kids played around their feet. Women’s unpaid work (as well as men’s, of course) was absolutely vital to the creation of organizations as diverse and important as Hospice Kawartha Lakes, the Lindsay Art Gallery, the Ross Memorial Hospital’s auxiliary, Community Living, the Red Cross, parent councils at schools, Habitat for Humanity, and roughly a zillion church committees and fundraisers, to name just a few. Today, 100 Women Who Care Kawartha Lakes—whose membership is well over 200, by the way—is a fundraising juggernaut organized by three women with little spare time but a lot of talent.

Our community is so much richer, kinder and more livable because of this work, all of it freely and lovingly given. Wouldn’t it be great if we recognized that unpaid work, whether it’s done inside or outside the home has merit and dignity regardless of the gender of the person doing it, and should be given the respect it deserves? Making a home where kids feel safe and loved is some of the most important work there is, so let’s start acting like it. Men who take parental leave or opt to stay home with children aren’t babysitting, as people (usually older women) used to say to my husband—they’re being parents. Women who choose to leave the paid workforce while they raise kids are not throwbacks or looking to take it easy.

Grocery shopping, cutting the grass, attending parent-teacher meetings, washing uniforms, caring for aging relatives, keeping a house tidy, planning birthday parties, maintaining the car, doing the bookkeeping—it’s all important work. So is shovelling the neighbour’s walk, raising money for those in need, running a soccer league, reading to kids who need extra help, supporting local artists and actors, maintaining a neighbourhood rink, cleaning up litter along roads and waterways, putting together a float for the fair parade, organizing a Canada Day celebration—and all of those other jobs, big and small, that enhance life in Kawartha Lakes.

Paid or unpaid, we’re all in this together. To my mother and to all people of any age or gender who continue to work to make our homes and communities better, thank you.

1 Comment

  1. If one can’t stay home to look after their family and home, you are poor.

    Denying the fact that you are poor is what your state is counting on.

    Not long ago family would be considered middle class with one working on family, now two work and can barely be considered middle class, the state raise your kids and you pay for it.

    Things will not change as government wants you to earn the money pay the income tax and then buy time for your kids in daycare. You have no time to cook or do anything around the home therefore hire in workers to repair home.

    All along money is getting curned to create more taxes.

    There isn’t a reason to change things from the perspective of the state as government have the right to over spend you tax dollar and no ability to make money with your money.

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