'...And what do you do?'
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
Ah, the dinner-party question I love to hate. It encapsulates so much information about the person who asks it (either they really want to know, in which case they’re going to make some kind of judgement about you; or else they can’t think of anything else to ask, in which case they probably don’t know enough about themselves), and their response to your answer will tell you a lot about their value system. But it also says a lot about the society we live in. A capitalist one.
One of the effects of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown has been a mass evaluation of various jobs, beyond their immediate economic worth. We’ve spent ten weeks publicly applauding all care workers, previously an occupation that didn’t rate very highly when scored by either capitalist values or social status, but which, it is now abundantly clear, quite literally keeps the world turning when it’s in dire straits. As do the other key workers who haven’t received quite so much praise: delivery drivers, postmen and women, refuse collectors.
In a capitalist society, what you do is who you are and economic power is the strongest, most effective kind to have. For so much of my life I’ve felt – and fought – an internal battle between the influence of the surrounding culture and a small inner knowledge that there are other things that matter more. I hope one of the lessons this virus will teach us all is that it isn't always a pay cheque that determines a worker's value. But one of the reasons that there's often an uptick in mental health issues during economic depressions is that we've all been taught to value ourselves based on such narrow criteria. I can sense just such issues around the corner as furlough begins to taper off from August and firms are asked to pay workers more.
It’s evitable that redundancies will increase and many workers will experience the agony of the feeling that their personal value has gone down in line with their earning power. I’ve been made redundant three times now – twice during or after my two maternity leaves – and can personally testify to the feeling of worthlessness that comes with becoming ‘economically inactive’. But for the first time, now, I'm trying to fight against it.
Last year I was made redundant for the third time, when the magazine I worked for closed down. At the same time two close family members were seriously unwell. A combination of circumstances and increasing responsibilities meant that at a stroke I went from being an economically active member of society to an unpaid carer of my two children and my ninety-something Grandma. (The picture is of her with my youngest child during one of our many visits.)
On a practical level the fact that my youngest child didn’t yet qualify for any funded nursery hours meant that all the caring for her Great-Grandma was done with her in tow. In a way, that was a hassle – I was shuttling between making my Nan’s food and trying to toddler-proof a house full of three generations’ worth of clutter – but in another way it was lovely. When I was her age, I was here too, being babysat by my beloved Grandma while my mum was at work, and probably picking up some of the same choking-risk items that I was now snatching out of her hands. Nan cared for me, and now I was caring for her. Life is cyclical, and this felt right. I wanted to be here with her, doing the things she had done for herself for so long, but now had to relinquish into my hands.
But I was also aware that I was contributing nothing to the economy; I was claiming certain benefits to enable me the debatable ‘luxury’ of doing this care work myself; and – I’m no saint – some days I wholeheartedly wished that at 9am I was walking towards work and the prospect of a hot coffee, wearing lipstick, rather than driving between the school drop-off and my morning cleaning/shopping/chatting session at Nan’s house, wearing ripped jeans stained with my daughter’s breakfast.
But then came that call. I’d been expecting it, but of course I didn’t know it when it came. Someone needed to be at Nan’s to take some shopping and let in the podiatrist. I made her a cup of tea and a sandwich, held the tea to her lips and worried that she wouldn’t eat. When I said goodbye that morning I told her I loved her. I’d started doing that every time ‘just in case’ but I didn’t ever really think it would be the final time. This time it was. I remember thinking how thin the line is between life and death. She hadn’t been at her best, that morning, but I’d also seen her worse, and then rally round. Now she was gone. I can’t know what she went through, and part of me wishes I’d actually been there for her final moment, only hours after that cup of tea. But I also know that wasn’t possible. Many times I prayed that my small daughter wouldn’t have to witness my Nan’s final moments, and that prayer was answered. I hope she wasn’t in pain. I hope it was quick. But I know with certainty that the end of her life was as comfortable as it could have been, at home, surrounded by her familiar things, cared for by her family.
Care work doesn’t pay much. Sometimes it pays nothing at all. It doesn’t contribute to the economy. There are no high-powered meetings, no press conferences, no performance reviews. But there is the knowledge that you were there when someone needed you. There is the comfort of that touch, that tea, that doorbell sounding when you’re alone. There is worth in making even one person’s life better than it would have been without you. If you care for anyone, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen, remember that before you judge yourself for your lack of earning power. A pay packet is a palpable measure of your worth, but it’s only one way of looking at your life. Another would be the legacy of the love that you gave, that you showed, that you imprinted onto others, and finally, left behind. Rest in peace Grandma, and thank you for the memories. I only gave you a fraction of the care that you gave to me, but I cherished every moment with you.