Work Won't Love You Back
eBook - ePub

Work Won't Love You Back

How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone

Sarah Jaffe

  1. 296 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Work Won't Love You Back

How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone

Sarah Jaffe

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Book preview
Table of contents

About This Book

You're told that if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life.Whether it's working for free in exchange for 'experience', enduring poor treatment in the name of being 'part of the family', or clocking serious overtime for a good cause, more and more of us are pushed to make sacrifices for the privilege of being able to do work we enjoy.Work Won't Love You Backexamines how we all bought into this 'labour of love' myth: the idea that certain work is not really work, and should be done for the sake of passion rather than pay. Through the lives and experiences of various workers—from the unpaid intern and the overworked teacher, to the nonprofit employee, the domestic worker and even the professional athlete—this compelling book reveals how we've all been tricked into a new tyranny of work.Sarah Jaffe argues that understanding the labour of love trap will empower us to work less and demand what our work is worth. Once freed, we can finally figure out what actually gives us joy, pleasure and satisfaction.

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Ray Malone found out she was pregnant while she was working on her first musical theater project.
She was in her late twenties at the time, living in London, and finding her political voice. “It was 2014, like six days before I found out I was pregnant,” she said, when she saw an ad to apply to perform at a feminist arts festival. These were the days before Brexit, when the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was in the news agitating against immigration and the European Union. “UKIP seemed like such a joke, and [its leaders] were constantly saying such ridiculous things,” Malone said. Their obsession with traditional gender roles convinced her to design a UKIP swing dance performance, so she joined forces with another theater-maker who was planning a UKIP-themed cabaret.
It had been a shock to discover her pregnancy. “It was quite violent,” she explained. “They thought I had an ectopic pregnancy because I was in so much pain. I had a cyst that turned out to be the size of an orange.” She also learned she had endometriosis, and with that discovery came the realization that this pregnancy might be her only chance to have the child she knew she wanted.
Malone is a slight woman, pale and petite, with artist’s hands that are usually moving, occupied—embroidering, gesturing. She lights up when she’s telling a story, and you can see the charisma she’d project onstage.
She danced through her pregnancy, in a big wig and exaggerated feminine silhouette, embodying and mocking all the stereotypes of womanhood she’d lived with all her life. “My daughter is really musical—that’s why,” she laughed. It was her first political theater project, and she worked alongside activist groups, adding numbers to go along with outrageous things that politicians said. “There was a UKIP councilor that said that floods were caused by gay people, so we had a troupe of gay men singing, ‘It’s Raining Men.’” They took the cabaret to the hometown of Nigel Farage, UKIP’s founder and public face, and tried to conga into the pub across the street one night when he turned up there. They were chased off. But Farage came out to confront them—and then told the press he’d been harassed by leftists chasing his children. Farage was in the Daily Mail “calling us scum,” Malone said.1
Back in London after the event, the performers gathered to hold a debrief, where the white nationalist group Britain First turned up and attempted to intimidate them. “I remember thinking, ‘Don’t get stressed out because it would be really bad for the baby,’” she said. “The Britain First people were like, ‘We’re going to teach you to scare people’s kids!’ ‘You’re the lefty witch who is chasing good children.’” But her friends shouted back, “There’s a pregnant woman in here!” she said. “We were like, ‘No, I’m the good woman.’”
“This has been my journey of being a mother,” she said. She felt haunted by these tropes: good mother, bad mother. She’d worried about being a single parent because of her own upbringing in what she described as “quite a patriarchal family, really.” She struggled too with the presumption that working-class women have children solely in order to get benefits.
Malone was born in North Wales; she’s the youngest of six children by several years. By the time she came along, her parents were more economically secure than they’d been early on, though they described themselves, she said, as working class. Her father was an English teacher and a climbing instructor; her mother had left school young and taken an arts job. “We’re all quite creative, and I think we all get it from my mum working in this art shop when she was sixteen,” she said. Her father, too, had a creative influence on her—and on the poet John Cooper Clarke, who credited her father’s teaching with inspiring him to write. John Malone would tell his students, “Write like the greats, but write about what you know”—a line Malone has taken to heart in her own art practice.
Being an artist, she noted, is insecure work. She asked herself, “Am I kidding myself to think I could raise a child by doing this? You can feed yourself beans on bread for a week, but you can’t have an undernourished child because you want a career in the arts.”
The father of her baby was someone she’d been close to for a while—they’d run a theater company together—and so they decided to try co-parenting, but their relationship didn’t last. Realizing she would need more support once the baby arrived, and looking at London rents, in her eighth month of pregnancy Malone decided to move to Sheffield to be near her sister.
Her sister helped to support her, bringing her food parcels; in turn, Malone helped with her sister’s kids. “You are so vulnerable when you’ve just had a child,” she noted. “You see a health visitor once in a while that asks, ‘Are you all right? Is your baby sleeping through the night?’ They are not going to ask, ‘How have you coped moving two hundred miles away from where you know anybody, with a young child, and when you don’t know what you’re doing for the rest of your life?’” The political situation didn’t help. The United Kingdom had become incredibly polarized around Brexit. Malone missed the community of the cabaret.
Just before her daughter Nola’s first birthday, a friend from the theater called with an offer to do a show in Greece. Malone directed a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for an all-women theater company on the island of Lesbos with Nola on her hip. It was idyllic: “I was surrounded by this big group of women who would look after my daughter all the time. I was directing theater in the sunshine.”
But at the end of the show, she and Nola returned to the United Kingdom to live in a family-owned cottage in “pretty much the middle of nowhere.” Manchester was a twenty-minute train ride away, but getting there with a small child was difficult. “It was really isolating.” The cottage was free and she was out of work, but being completely alone was getting to her. “Not everybody has a child in the ‘right’ way,” she noted, with a partner and a mortgage. “Being an artist, you often feel that your occupation is a luxury and your whole identity, then, feels like you are playacting being something.” She’d studied theater through graduate school and didn’t want to give it up after all that investment. But, she noted, “it is a big question for lots of actors: How long do you keep going with it?” She’d worked in Russia, briefly, years earlier, as a governess for a wealthy family, and seeing that wealth had given her more resolve to want to continue making art. “There are fewer and fewer working-class voices in the art world,” she said.
So, when the chance came to do The Tempest again, this time in London, she was thrilled. Nola could be closer to her father, and Malone could get paid to do theater. At first, though, making ends meet in London was nearly impossible. “I lived in a shared house for a while that turned out to be a nightmare, living in a bedsit type of situation with a two-year-old.” From there, she wound up essentially homeless, hopping from house-sitting gig to house-sitting gig. “It was really, really stressful,” she said. “We don’t know where we’re going to be. We’ve got no money. We’re on our own.”
She was living on Universal Credit, the United Kingdom’s new benefits system, while taking on occasional gigs—“any old job”—and getting some support from her daughter’s father. Living close to him, though, meant being “a very poor person living in a very wealthy pocket of London.” Receiving Universal Credit comes with stigma—especially, she noted, in that wealthy area—and people don’t consider raising a daughter to be work. “I tried to get my daughter into a different nursery,” Malone said. “They were like, ‘Oh, you have to pay £150 a month.’” The nursery asked more questions about money, and Malone explained that she was on Universal Credit but that her ex was a teacher. “The woman on the phone at the nursery was like, ‘We do find that people are rewarded if they work.’ It was like a knife in the stomach, like, ‘You’re not a proper member of society.’”
When she was house-hopping, Malone said, the local council offered to rehouse her in Birmingham. With the housing benefit capped below market rental rates, for many people the only option is to leave London—but in London, Malone has the support of her former partner. “We waste so much money on rent,” she said. “I have to think, ‘God, what else could that be spent on? Could my daughter have music lessons? Could we have a holiday if we weren’t spending so much money on rent?’”
Searching for a full-time job, though, presented even more problems. To keep receiving Universal Credit, she had to make periodic visits to the job center, and the program’s requirements get stricter as your child grows older. By the time Nola was three, Malone was expected to be looking for full-time work and required to turn up at the job center regularly for meetings with a “work coach.” But childcare, even with Nola in school, is hard to come by, and it made her question whether it was worth it to get a job. The stress that parents are under, she noted, is constant. “Women are having their kids taken off them because of a variety of stresses that they are under, because of poverty, because of austerity, because the situation that we’re in is awful. I’m somebody with a postgraduate education that has still found a huge amount of struggle. It is a really difficult thing to talk about. You don’t want to seem like a bad mother.”2
* * *
Love is women’s work. This is the lesson young girls are taught from the time they are born; girl babies are dressed in pink, the color of Valentine’s Day. As they grow up, they are encouraged in a thousand tiny ways to pay close attention to the needs of the people around them, to smile and to be pleasing to the eye. Gender roles are reinforced first and foremost in the family, and the family, even in this supposedly postfeminist era, revolves around the unpaid work of taking care of others. Failure to do that work properly, as Ray Malone said, results in the charge of “bad mother,” which often just translates to “bad woman.”3
The labor of love begins, then, in the home. We are still told that the work of cleaning and cooking, of nursing wounds, of teaching children to walk and talk and read and reason, of soothing hurt feelings and smoothing over little crises, comes naturally to women. These things are assumed not to be skills, not to be learned, as other skills are, through practice. And this assumption has crept from the home into the workplaces of millions of people—not all of them women—and has left them underpaid, overstretched, and devalued. Our willingness to accede that women’s work is love, and that love is its own reward, not to be sullied with money, creates profits for capital.
None of this is natural. The family itself was and is a social, economic, and political institution. It developed alongside other such institutions—capitalism and the state—and, like them, developed as a mechanism of controlling and directing labor, in this case, the labor of women. As historian Stephanie Coontz wrote, to mourn the decline of the two-heterosexual-parent nuclear family is to be nostalgic for “the way we never were,” for a situation that never included everyone and by which few were well served. It is to lament the crumbling of an edifice designed to keep women’s labor cheap or free.4
The work ethic and the family ethic developed together, and they are still intertwined. When we hear of “work-life balance,” it is all too often in stories of women trying to find time outside of the office to spend with their families. The family, in other words, is presented as being in competition with the demands of capitalism. But theorists as far back as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have pointed out that the family as we know it actually serves to smooth the functioning of capitalism: it reproduces—creates more—workers, without whom capitalism can’t function. This is why we call all of that caring, cooking, and soothing, along with the literal process of bearing children, “reproductive labor.” If the family is in crisis, it is because capitalism is in crisis—and if we can see the cracks now, it is because the stories we have been told about these institutions have ceased to paper over reality.5
There is nothing natural about a two-parent, two-point-five-child picket-fence household, any more than there is anything natural about the car that carts it around. It is a creation of history, a history that involves plenty of violence and struggle as well as what we think of as evolution. The one “natural” fact of reproduction, Coontz and anthropologist Peta Henderson wrote, is that the people we came to think of as women were “society’s source of new members.” A division of labor, though, did not automatically mean that one type of labor would end up paid, valorized, and mythologized while the other, that of reproduction and care-giving, was devalued and presumed not to be work at all.6
Scholars disagree on the exact causes of male dominance, or what we might call patriarchy. But they have given us clues as to how we ended up in a world where women still do most of the unpaid labor. As early humans began to produce more than they could consume, individually or as a group, they began to exchange products with other groups, as well as to exchange members, in some version of what we now call marriage. As those products became private property, to be handed down through the family line, control of reproduction—as well as the other labors women were expected to perform—became more important to men. Men had to be able to determine what women did and with whom; their labor was diminished precisely to downplay how important it was. Women were not simply oppressed, in other words, but exploited.7
This exploitation, the subordination of women’s work, was accomplished in part through violence but upheld through ideology. As the institution matured, the “family” shrank down to something like what we think of now as the nuclear family. By the time of ancient Greece, the household was central, and women’s place had been established as in the home.8
That doesn’t mean that work and the family in Plato’s Athens looked the way they did in 1950s America. For one thing, Athenian prosperity was based on the labor done by slaves, not white men working union jobs. But the subordination of women and the diminishing of the value of their work was firmly established at the birth of the state as an institution, long before the advent of capitalism.9
With capitalism, though, came a whole new set of practices for dividing and controlling household work. The division between “home” and “workplace” didn’t exist in feudal Europe in the way it began to exist under capitalism. In early medieval cities, women worked as doctors, butchers, teachers, retailers, and smiths. They had gained a degree of freedom. In pre-capitalist Europe, Silvia Federici wrote, “women’s subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other communal assets.” Under capitalism, though, “women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the sphere of market relations.”10
This rearranging of reproductive labor was ushered in with blood. Specifically, the bloodshed that birthed modern domestic relations came through witch-hunts. Women were deprived of rights they’d previously held, of access to wages, and allowed neither to gather in groups nor to live alone. The only safe place for a woman to be was attached to a man. Although women who refused to marry, women who owned a little property, and particularly midwives, healers, and other women who exercised some control over reproduction, and who may have carried out abortions, were especial targets of the witch-hunts, the terror worked precisely because nearly anyone could be accused. This terror helped to mold the thing we now think of as gender.11
The witch-hunts not only served to force women off the common land, which was being enclosed, and back into the home. They also reminded entire populations what might happen if they refused to work. Eliminating popular belief in magic, Federici wrote, was central to the creation of the capitalist work ethic: magic was “an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action.” The discipline (and at times torture) of the body during the witch-hunts helped to lay the ground for the discipline of the body by the boss during the workday, not only the discipline of the time-clock but also of sore muscles, tired joints, and worn-out minds that it now became a woman’s job to soothe.12
Thus, the dichotomy between “home” and “work” was created, and along with it so many other binary oppositions that continue to shape our assumptions about the world: “mind...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Introduction: Welcome to the Working Week
  7. Part One: What We Might Call Love
  8. Part Two: Enjoy What You Do!
  9. Conclusion: What Is Love?
  10. Notes
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. Index