My last post “The Economics of Parenting” touched on the unpaid and unacknowledged labor of parents. Feminism has long seen it as a problem but has entirely failed to produce workable solutions. An early demand of “wages for housework” went nowhere because, under capitalism, there is no answer to the question of who should pay. Meanwhile, Marxist feminists in academia did a good job of defining the problem but otherwise mostly left it alone.
The labor movement also hasn’t been much help. Collective bargaining only makes sense if there is an outside entity invested in whether or not the work gets done, and when it comes to our children, that’s mostly not the case. Other peoples’ kids are usually regarded as “other peoples’ problems” and that’s that. Strikes make no sense, either. What are you going to do, not take care of your kid?
There’s a name for this job: “shadow work.”Australian historian and philosopher Ivan Illich coined the term in the 1981 book Shadow Work. I’ve only just started the book, but it’s fascinating. Here’s an excerpt.
In a commodity-intensive society, basic needs are met through the products of wage labor – housing no less than education, traffic no less than the delivery of infants. The work ethic which drives such a society legitimates employment for salary or wages and degrades independent coping. But the spread of wage labor accomplishes more – it divides unpaid work into two opposite types of activities. While the loss of unpaid work through the encroachment of wage labor has often been described, the creation of a new kind of work has been consistently ignored: the unpaid complement of industrial labor and services.
That’s parenting and housework right there. They complement wage work because they free somebody else to spend more hours in the workplace.
Feminists have been talking about the concept for some time, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it so tangibly expressed. It’s also part of a coherent theory that directly addresses a question that feminism gave up on: How do you change the system?
I’ll save that enormous question for another blog post, but believe me, I will get to it. In the meantime I’ll just touch on why I personally am in love with the term shadow work.
It’s all about respect, baby. Time and again, as I was staying at home with young children, people asked me “Are you working?” Of course, they meant wage labor. Usually I let it pass. Sometimes I said “Yes, I’m working in the home” and sometimes I said, “No.” What can I say? I was seriously sleep-deprived. My best answer was to the question “I mean, are you working outside the home?” when I said, “No way! I don’t want two jobs.”
But now I can say. “Definitely. I’m performing shadow labor.”
The term fights back against the disrespect I feel whenever I hear I’m “not working” or “not in the real world.” That disrespect gets at the core of me, whenever I perform housework or similar jobs.
Also, the term is beautifully consistent with Jungian philosophy. The shadow, in Jungian terms, is everything that is a true part of our nature but that we repress, hide, push away, deny, negate. At the same time, the more we repress it, the stronger it gets. There is power in shadow.
I have to end this post now. My shadow labor workday began around seven a.m. and will end at nine p.m. Things to do. People to see. Boats to float.