the work of living vs the work of capital

parenting as labor

recently i was thinking about the commodification of parenthood and home-labor. by this i mean: the feminist movement to assign a monetary or economic value to the work done by parents and by people at home. cooking, cleaning, caretaking, raising children, managing a household, and so on fall under this umbrella. under capitalism, commodifying all types of work is inevitable and, to a degree, useful. by commodifying the labor of the home, people whose work has been un-valued and un-paid can (hopefully) gain economic value and social recognition. under capitalism, this is a good thing. under capitalism, unpaid work is exploitation. unpaid home laborers are very often women, and low-paid home laborers are very often women of color (house cleaners, nannies).

(disclaimer: i discuss parenting as a non-parent teacher, so someone who sees a lot of parents and children and thinks about parenthood a lot, without actually being a parent.)

parenting under capitalism is a zero-sum game. wealthy parents run themselves (or their nannies) ragged trying to ensure that their children will come out on top, i.e. grow into adults who are also wealthy. middle income parents attempt to do this as well, albeit with fewer resources. tutoring, extra curricular activities, and volunteering opportunities may fill every spare moment a child has in these families, essentially preventing them from doing what children need most to grow — play, spend time with friends and families, and explore the world around them at their own pace. poor parents and middle income parents alike likely struggle to afford childcare, especially when children are young and need care full-time before they begin school (or, as i like to think of it, America’s answer to free childcare). children in all brackets are stressed, over-scheduled, over-exposed to social media, and likely subject to nonsensical pressures from the nonsensical capitalist hellscape they are set to inherit.

compounding this stress on parents and children alike is the astronomical cost of raising a child from birth to adulthood — it costs over $230,000 to raise a child to the age of 17 in the united states.

with the very real cost and effort of raising a child, it absolutely makes sense that many advocate for this labor to be economically recognized under capitalism. but is putting parenting, human relationships, and home-labor under the umbrella of the work of capital actually a good thing for us as people? should this be a major feminist goal as we work to build a more just, equitable future on earth?

the work of living

under capitalism, everything is commodified, including relations between people. in a non-capitalist world, human relations and home labor are really just part of what i think of as the work of living (thank you to Leigh Bardugo for that specific phrasing). 

the work of living, as i conceive it, is the natural work that goes with being alive and belonging to a community and a family. cooking, cleaning, caretaking, child-raising, sewing, making art, baking, gardening, even scientific invention and discovery… — these are the acts of creation that we do to stay alive and to bring things of beauty into being.

caring for children, for example, should be a pleasure and a relaxation and should not take undue joy or time away from parents. it should be a communal enterprise, meaning that children should be raised by multiple adults within an extended family or community network. children are communal, meaning that neither the labor that accompanies raising a child nor “ownership” over a child should belong to a single person or set of people. nuclearizing our family structures results in over-stressed, unhappy adults and children. relatedly, children are people and are not the property of the adult who cares for them, and because nuclearized families are more insular and stressed, this creates an environment ripe for child abuse (poverty and economic stress also contribute to this). parenting and child rearing is, to me, the work of living. 

in the US, parenthood is treated as a personal choice, a self sacrificial slog that individuals sign themselves up for. we are blamed for becoming parents. parenthood is not seen for what it is: a social good. we need people to have children, or we will soon run out of people. because parenthood is categorized as a choice rather than a social good (and in fact, a service), our government does not feel pressure to offer support, and we as people do not feel that we deserve support. we do. parenthood and the caretaking of children is one of the most important jobs we do. some people do not love children and need not be caretakers of children, but children should have a cultural protection around them. we should expect that adults treat children with respect, kindness, and decency. 

we do not have a society that allows for the “work of living” conception of family structures and child-raising. we live in a capitalist world that relies on the unpaid exploitation of home-labor that fully supports the paid economic work we do outside of our homes. as a result, most americans are emotionally and financially stressed and have little free time to enjoy the work of living. so, we reject it. this rejection of the work of living is an inevitable result of our exhaustion with the work of capital. we have no time and energy left after our work-day to do our work of living, so, when we can, we outsource it. even the rejection of children (the child-free movement) smacks of a culture too exhausted to contemplate laboring for free for another person — but under another model, parenthood would look fully different. we should all be caretakers of children, even and especially if we have none of “our own.” children are communal, and children are people who are integral parts of our communities and our future.

instead, we have only the language of capital, and so parental labor is nuclearized and commodified (necessarily so, as it becomes capital-labor and is devalued and unpaid for most). we think we are digging deep into equity by discussing how mothers do unpaid labor constantly, and protesting that they should be compensated — but this conversation only makes sense to begin with under capitalism, because parenting and living would be so entirely different under another system.

as with most things, reform of a unjust system is not the answer. reform is a nonsensical concept. if something is unjust to its very roots — like the entire american capitalist project — then no “tweaks” or “adjustments” can change the system in a meaningful, just way. we must abolish the systems we have and build together the systems we know we need — many of which are as old as human society and have simply been overwritten in modern history by the capitalists.

if you ask me, the way forward is simply to begin building what we wish to see. every day we create the future, whether intentionally or not. we should work together and build what we want to see in 5 or 10 or 20 years. with parenting, this could mean intentionally building networks with friends, family, or community members to ensure your children have a number of adults they can turn to and use as models. it means demanding community care networks from our local governments and building what we need anyway, getting as many members of the community to participate as we can. i’m not saying it’s easy, i’m just saying the american government will not save us. they were never going to save us. this country is a on a death march that is moving ever-quicker as we continue to hasten the global climate apocalypse. but we can still build what we need and reject what doesn’t serve us — and i think we should.