Category Archives: on the job

As a parent and a writer, most of what I do is unpaid. But it’s still a job. Here’s what it’s like.

The Plum Harvest

It was enormous this year. With help, I’ve taken at least sixty pounds of it off the tree so far, and there are more left. These are just a few:


our plum harvest

What does a person do with that many plums, anyway??? When I was growing up, our family made plum jam. Way too much work! Also, I like them raw, not cooked. Very best: sun-warmed and overripe. The only way to get that kind of plum is to have your own tree, or stay on good relations with a friend or neighbor who has a tree.

There’s a limit to how many fresh plums you can eat in a day and still crave them. I’ve gone over it. So . . . I’ve frozen some, made some into muffins, and given some away, to lots of different people. Some are going to a Food Security project, still in its infancy.  It’s an anti-capitalist effort.

Speaking of capitalism, and economics, what is the value of a fresh, ripe plum? The grocery store says it’s about $3.50 per pound, and since there are 12 of these plums in a pound, that would cost just about $0.30. In theory, if I wanted to sell all sixty pounds myself, I could get about $210. But that’s only if I could sell every last one, at that price. About half are bruised or have small bites, and we’re used to buying fruit that looks perfect. So it’s down to $105, barring clever marketing or packaging or whatnot.

Is that the only way to measure the value of a plum? What about its caloric value? About 30 calories. That would be 360 calories for a pound and 21,600 calories for the lot. Well, that’s interesting. Assuming that 2500 as an average daily caloric intake, those plums would feed a person for 8 days. (Do not try this at home, kids. Your colon can’t take it.) In a time of famine, this would be a windfall.

Or what about value in terms of time expended? Never mind the time it took to plant and water the tree, because it’s self-sufficient by now. But there’s pruning, keeping bindweed away, and hosing it down to prevent aphids. This year, an extra “climate change tax” of time because it rained ash, so I’m washing and drying the plums. Then of course, there’s the time it takes to pick the plums. Let’s estimate 30 hours annually. In that case, the plums are worth two pounds an hour.

In that case, one hour of labor gets me $7 worth of plums – not even minimum wage. Or, to see it another way, it gets me a third of my daily caloric intake. (Kids, again: Don’t eat all those plums in one sitting.)

These comparisons let me notice some things: first, we usually think of value in capitalism’s terms; and second, there are so many other ways to measure it.

What about the plums’ value to the tree? Clearly, since the tree just drops them on the ground, they’re worth nothing. On the other hand, if it wasn’t going to bear fruit, I wouldn’t have planted it in my back yard. So the tree owes everything to its plums.

How does the tree repay the favor? By sharing its plums. (Side note, it gives plums to the bees as well, which did the tree the favor of fertilizing the fruit in the first place, and which take bites of the fruit at harvest time.)

How do I repay the favor? Also by sharing the plums. And that brings me back to the food security project. It’s an anarchist thing. There is a hazy long-term goal of providing a sustainable source of food to a community, especially in case of economic collapse or whatnot. Will it succeed? Or will it go the way of many anarchist projects – abandoned in favor of something shinier? You can never tell.

All I know is that if people are truly interested in destroying capitalism, we have to build something else. And that “something else” depends on people not starving. It requires food to be produced, transported, distributed, and eaten. Somebody has to do that work. In any economic system.

In the meantime, twenty-some pounds of plums left my hands and went off to a meeting of anarchists, where they were shared and eaten and taken home. And valued.

Thanks, tree!

– Kristin





Shadow work and the gift economy

In earlier posts I’ve discussed shadow work — the unpaid labor that complements wage work in a market economy. This includes everything from childcare and housekeeping (which together make up ten hours of my unpaid day) to commuting to shopping — basically any efforts that make it possible for a worker to sell their labor. I’ve also discussed subsistence work — the unpaid labor that provides for basic human needs — and the ways in which subsistence work can also function as shadow work, by making a wage laborer cheaper to maintain. Finally, I looked at work from a market economy perspective and a household economy perspective.

So there’s another kind of economy that is worth looking at: the gift economy. In a gift economy, basic needs are met through gifts rather than barter or market exchange. As it turns out, some peoples have historically run on the basis of a gift economy, and all peoples have incorporated gift economy principles and practices to some extent.

There’s a helpful discussion of gift and market economies in the article “The Khoekhoe Free Economy: A Model for the Gift” by Yvette Abrahams, found in the anthology Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different World View is Possible, ed. Genevieve Vaughan.

The essay discusses the history of the indigenous people of South Africa, the Khoekhoe. Their gift-giving economy was lost after hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, apartheid, and structural adjustment–but many aspects of it remain. For example, it is the tradition at mealtime for a family to keep a little in the pot, in case someone knocks on the door and needs it.

Women give huge amounts of free labor, and according to Abrahams (writing in 2003), women’s subsistence farming provides about 66% of the food that feeds the continent, but it is never included in economic figures because it is given away, not sold.

This would be a workable economic solution except that women’s ability to farm is limited. For one thing, whites own 85% of the land in South Africa. For another, women have access to it only if they have a husband or a son.

So today in South Africa, the gift economy is broken in some important ways. It’s not a free social exchange, for instance, if one person needs the gift in order not to starve. It’s also not possible to gift when you have nothing. Abrahams writes: “Today, I cannot give away my labour. I have to work in order to eat.”

Also, the free labor operates not only as subsistence but also as a free subsidy of the wealthy. Abrahams writes: “Women’s non-waged labour provides two-thirds of all the food that Africans eat each year. In a way, it leads to greater independence, but in another way, it is a huge subsidy of the globalized capitalist economy.”

In other words, the gift economy is being exploited by the market economy. And the free gift of subsistence labor that people provide each other, to meet human needs, is being transformed into shadow work.

Is there a way to turn that around? Could understanding the relationship between the market and gift economies help us build a radically different future?

If you start to think about the gift economy, it is everywhere. The land gives freely of itself, providing sustenance and water and asking nothing in return. And from the moment of a child’s birth, their parents are providing the free gifts of food, shelter, and love. Even in the Western world, people are constantly giving each other presents — for birthdays, holidays, housewarmings, baby showers, weddings — and holding potlucks, and giving to charities, and volunteering, and the list goes on. Gift-giving is a normal human activity. Perhaps it is the market economy (which we mistakenly imagine is the only one that exists) that is artificial.

But if we have a gift economy, right here and right now, it is a broken one. When the market economy takes the free gifts but provides nothing in return, the gift economy runs out of steam and fails. We need to fix it.

Next up, I’ll talk about some more gift economies, both familiar and new.

– Kristin



Summer of changes

Summer vacation is the hardest time to be a stay-at-home mother. The weight of responsibility is on me twelve hours a day to make sure the kids get their needs met, and that means giving them some structure, but it’s a daily battle just to find structure for myself.

It’s also a particular kind of horrible to parent in an age when kids aren’t playing outside. One of the biggest gifts my mom gave me (thank you, mom! xoxoxo!) was the freedom to do what I liked in the summer, including going on long walks outside, or finding groups of kids to play with, or going to the park alone. I haven’t managed to give that same kind of freedom to my kids, and even if I did, all the kids who should be out playing are either in summer camps or indoors playing video games.

On top of that, I feel cultural pressure to justify my existence by finding paid work. Most of the women in my peer group went “back to work” (as if we hadn’t been working so hard already) when their youngest kids started elementary school, but my plan is to continue to stay home, working on my novel. But in the summer, I’m adrift in a sea of structurelessness and it’s hard to work on the novel. It’s just plain hard to think.

Next year, both kids will be in middle school. They deserve much more independence, including the ability to walk to and from school without an adult and the ability to set up their own social lives. They also deserve more responsibility, including the job of making their own lunches and cleaning their rooms. I did all those things by the time I was in middle school. My kids aren’t ready.

So this summer, my goal is to help them be ready. They’re doing regular room cleans now and we are getting out on daily hour-long walks, where they are starting to get a sense for how all the different neighborhood landmarks connect to each other. We’re taking the bus and going to drop-in programs at neighborhood community centers. Weekly library trips.  They find their own breakfasts and lunches. The social life planning . . . well, work in progress.

But I am only one person, and the price I pay for this is letting them have extra screen time, which lets me have some time to do my own thing. I intended to limit it to three hours a day, but I have a feeling it’s more like six. I feel enormously guilty about this. It’s just . . . that’s what I can do, on my own, during the day.

This is the first summer I’ve been able to go out and about with the kids without feeling like it’s an obligation. We’re getting to do things I want, instead of endlessly visiting playgrounds and watching little kids have fun while the adults around me all hang out texting. My kids are partners in my fun now, and I’m enjoying getting to know the people they are becoming.

It’s all changing. Life is going by so fast. I think I’m almost keeping up.

– Kristin




My posts on shadow work

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been contemplating the unpaid labor of mothers. The caregiving we do, essential in its own right, is also an economic contribution that goes on mostly in secret. I do apologize in advance for being lazy in my terminology through some of my posts, using the terms “women” and “mothers” as if we are the only ones who take on primary caregiving roles. Here are links to all the posts I’ve made:

I started out thinking about women’s liberation, and how it did and did not happen. I wrote: “Our role as primary caregiver, combined with economic exploitation, means that a woman is left largely alone to take on the multi-year, 24-hour-a-day responsibility to bring up the child.” I pointed out that although women who have money, or a wage, or a spouse with money, can pay somebody to do childcare, but these are all essentially workarounds to the primary problem that in an economy that requires a wage for simple survival, we don’t get one for the work we do.

Next up, I talked about how the wider economy uses women as a free source of human capital. I noted that “The unpaid labor mothers do, when we are perceived to be “not working,” has economic value to somebody outside our family, and people in power have measured that value.”

Then I named the unpaid labor done by parents, for the economic benefit of someone else, using Ivan Illich’s term “shadow work.” First I introduce the problem, then I give a longer analysis of Illich’s work, and finally, I consider two kinds of unpaid labor, shadow and subsistence, and two kinds of economies: household and market.

Next, I discussed shadow labor and gift economies.

There’s work yet to be done, and I hope I will get to it. It’s likely I won’t, at least in the forseeable future.

I am really interested in talking about shadow work and the prison-industrial complex. Is prison labor shadow work? What happens to a household economy when a worker, whether it be a shadow worker or a wage worker, is taken away to do prison labor?

I’m interested in looking at fertile and infertile women as two gender categories. Infertile women operate in our economy much like men, while fertile women end up stuck with shadow work and all it entails. I’d also like to challenge feminism and ask whether it really liberated women, or whether it just created a new class of men (infertile women) who may or may not be destined to flip genders.

I’m also interested in doing an economic thought experiment. What if all caregivers got a wage for the work they did? If it happened by way of wage earners getting a bigger wage, to cover all the caregiving work done for their families, and you gave the wage earner and the caregiver equal wages, then wages would have to double infinitely, wouldn’t they?

Finally, what about unions and shadow work? If I’m doing work and not earning a wage, and there’s nobody to ask for a wage from, then what is a union to me?

Another time, I hope!

– Kristin


By Nevit Dilmen (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Shadow or subsistence?

In yesterday’s post I talked about the difference between two forms of unpaid labor: shadow labor and subsistence labor.

Subsistence labor is the work that provides for basic human needs, and shadow labor is the unpaid complement to wage labor. It makes it possible for a worker to enter the market economy.

I made the observation that there’s a relationship between shadow and subsistence labor, using the example of backyard gardening. It would be subsistence work, because it provides for basic human needs, but also shadow work, because it makes a wage laborer easier to feed. So the same activity qualifies for both. How do you make sense of that?

I’d say it depends on which economy you’re looking at: the household economy or the market economy. We hardly ever look at the household as an economy, but it is.

In understanding the world around us, we need to look closely at shadow labor and subsistence labor, understanding them separately, in connection to each other, in connection to the household economy, and in connection to the market economy.

When you start to do that, you see some things that were hidden. The household economy includes both wage labor and shadow labor. This is true whether it is an economy of one person or an economy of ten. The market economy skims a little off the top of the household economy, both in the form of wage labor and in the form of money spent on consumer goods and services.

Curiously, this holds true for communism as well as capitalism. The theory behind communism was “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” In practice, though, some people ended up getting more than others. Skimmed off the top.

Overall, state-run communism was a failure. But curiously, even in a market economy, a household economy can be run in communist fashion. That’s how ours is. All the money earned by the wage laborer is deposited in a joint account, and we decide democratically how it is spent. On the level of the household economy, I feel proud of myself and an equal to my spouse.

But the underlying communism of our household economy does nothing whatsoever to stop capitalism. There’s a little skimmed off the top, or a lot. And on the level of the market economy, I am seen as nothing.

The underlying communism of our household economy also does nothing whatsoever to challenge the inequality between households. Our household makes enough money to meet our basic needs and then some. Other households struggle to make ends meet, even though the people within it work just as hard. As for ours, if we lost the wage labor, we’d be right there struggling to make ends meet.

In theory, though, could the values of a household economy be used to transform the wider economy? It’s worth a look.

– Kristin

Cat Question Mark by Retta Stephensen



Shadow Work by Ivan Illich

In my previous post, “Mothering in the Shadow,” I introduced some concepts from the book Shadow Work by Ivan Illich, published in 1981 and available in full online. Overall, the book is a mixed bag, but it introduces groundbreaking concepts that have serious potential for feminist, environmental, and anti-capitalist movements. So I’ll give a short introduction to Illich and his ideas, briefly touch on their flaws, and then move on to a discussion of how the ideas could be used.

About Ivan Illich

Among other things, Illich is a medieval historian. It gives him a unique perspective on modern life: much we take for granted about the world around us is socially constructed. Although he has a tendency to glamorize past societies, he can see economic systems in ways others don’t.

How he defines work

Most basically, what he’s saying is that wage labor created another kind of labor: unpaid activities that make wage labor possible in the first place, or shadow work. There is also a third kind of labor, subsistence work, which competes with wage labor.

Shadow work includes all kinds of unpaid labor: transportation to and from a job, the maintenance of automobiles, the work of purchasing commodities, the housework and other supporting activities a wife does to enable a husband to do wage labor, and childrearing, which supplies future wage labor.

Subsistence work would be playing a guitar instead of buying a record, growing a backyard garden instead of going to the supermarket, and feeding a baby at the breast instead of from a bottle.

How he defines economies

He sees economies as having three dimensions. The first is a continuum between left and right — communism and capitalism. To him, they’re flawed in the same way. Both do what he calls “welfare” – though meaning something different than our current welfare system. To him, “welfare” means distributing industrialized products that are ultimately inferior to their subsistence counterparts, but which then take the place of those counterparts.

The second is a continuum between hard and soft — that is, most technologically advanced to least. Again, he doesn’t necessarily see a difference in value between the two.

The third is from consumption to production — that is, from market economies to subsistence economies. This one is very important to him. Illich believes people are better off “when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. There, both wage labor and shadow work will decline . . .” (p. 14)

The flaws in his ideas

Don’t take me as an expert on Illich, because I’ve only read one of his books, and only one time through. But as far as I can tell, he’s much too taken by subsistence economies. In his body of work, he disparages modern medicine and universal education in such a way as to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

He is also naively unaware of how power operates. Any attempt to convert a market-based economy to one based on subsistence is going to be opposed by the ruling class, which has military and propaganda on its side. Wage labor and shadow work won’t decline on their own.

Next up, although he says he doesn’t see much difference between capitalism and communism (“the capitalist and the commisar”), most of the book deals with the market economy and wage labor.

Finally, as much as I love his separation of shadow work and subsistence, there’s a relationship between them that he hasn’t parsed. If shadow work is everything that supports a wage laborer, subsistence work like backyard gardening would also support a wage laborer, by making the person cheaper to feed.

The takeaway for feminism

So yes, Illich’s analysis has flaws. At the same time, it was groundbreaking to observe that there is a whole category of work that our economy ignores.

Feminists have been talking about this for a long time but with a slightly different focus. Feminists have complained that men work for pay and women do housework and childcare without pay. But that leads to an easy mistake: the idea that making men and women equal will somehow make this unpaid labor go away. But we’ve found that it doesn’t. Women have entered the workforce and men have stayed at home, and the unpaid labor is still a problem. Because women bear children and are their first caregivers, no matter how much we work toward gender equality, we are still saddled with work without pay.

So what happens if we take a good, hard look at all the shadow work that gets done? Not only childrearing and housework but transportation, volunteer jobs — everything? People of every gender should be outraged at all the free labor we’ve been snookered into doing for the benefit of the one percent, without getting even our basic needs done in return.

The takeaway for anticapitalist work

I’ve spent a lot of time with people who want to abolish capitalism but don’t have the least idea how to go about it. They’ve put a lot of work toward that end, but they’ve still been stuck with myths about how our economy works. Without a clear understanding, how can they know whether what they’re doing is actual resistance, or just shadow work under a new guise?

Meanwhile, the unchecked growth of the economy is continuing to lead toward environmental devastation and the fulfillment of a prophecy made in the 1970s that sometime within the next hundred years we will suffer a collapse of our economy and our population. Capitalism might well abolish itself, in which case we need to be ready to replace it with a workable replacement. And subsistence has to be part of it.

Failures of capitalism to provide for the common good of countries are already happening, of course. What happens then? Does a subsistence economy step in? For example, in 2001 the economy collapsed in Argentina and communities found new ways of coping–the book Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin, tells that story. Where else has the economy failed, and what have communities done to make ends meet? We can look at history all we like, but we won’t understand the answer until we know how subsistence work plays a part.


Worth the read

All in all, this book is well worth the read. Absorb it with a grain of salt, or maybe a teaspoon. And a glossary. (He makes up words, or takes words from contemporary thinkers, and uses them without properly defining them first. He also takes words with commonly accepted meanings and assigns them new meanings, also usually without defining them. )

In keeping with his opposition to the commodification of labor, he doesn’t appear to have copyrighted it, and it is available for free download here.

Picture of a shadow on the floor


Mothering in the Shadow

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.