When A Woman’s Work Doesn’t Count
Editor’s Note: Mihee Kim-Kort is an ordained clergy woman now a stay-at-home mom to twin babies. She blogs regularly at www.miheekimkort.com, and can be found on Twitter at @miheekimkort. And good grief, do I admire her story, her strength, and her words. – Lauren
Growing up, it was always my father who worked to support the family.
When we first immigrated to this country, I was barely a year old. My parents had next-to-no knowledge of the English language. My father worked jobs like movie theater attendant that the high school students did half-assed in order to pay for food or booze on the weekends. After he finished an undergraduate program at the University of Colorado extension in Colorado Springs, he began working for a computer company that has now been subsumed by Hewlett-Packer. But he started, of course, at the bottom rung before finally getting in finance and accounting. He tells me stories about company parties where people offered him pot, picnics where employees let loose with each other a little, and “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,” which I remember doing briefly.
When I think of work — quantifiable work, important work — I think of my dad. It took a while to realize that my mother was a working woman, too.
She worked everything from dry cleaning to childcare to assembly work soldering little electronics alongside many of the women from our church. They could chat the day away talking about their children, family back in Korea, and their sometimes insufferable husbands. And they could do it comfortably in Korean. Eventually my parents would try their hand at owning businesses — a clothing store, a sandwich store — and my mother basically ran them both until they went under. Then, to make ends meet, both my parents worked as custodians in the evenings at the local bank. I have memories of sleeping on the floor in one of the rooms as my parents vacuumed, scrubbed toilets, and swept the entryway. But for some reason none of this work “counted.” Because my mother was seen as the main caregiver to her children, me and my brother. That was her work.
Ironically, this kind of work — and not only caring for children — is not necessarily seen as work either. There’s no income if you are the parent of the children. There are no health benefits, no medical insurance, no pension. There’s no retirement package, no bonuses, no commission, no quantifiable measure of success or accomplishment.
Somehow I did eventually become a working woman. In high school during my senior year, I worked a part-time job sloshing Orange Julius shakes together. In college, whenever I went home for the summers, I worked in the accounting department of a limousine company. During and after graduation from seminary, I worked in churches.
Now, I don’t work outside of the home. I am stay-at-home to twin babies.
Do we see the problematic dichotomy here? Work = value, and home = what??? Non-value? Value in a lesser sense? It became so entrenched in me as I saw it embodied in my father and mother, this difference, this distinction, that I embodied it, too, without really thinking about it.
I was only able to see the dualism in this understanding of gendered work when I stopped working at the church to stay home with the babies. Because, hello, I feel like I’m working. I’m seriously working my ass off every day. Except I don’t punch in since it’s literally 24/7. And, I don’t get a paycheck at the end of the week, though if I were to be paid in poopy diapers and clothes, slobber, and runny noses, I’d be ready for retirement. I don’t write up summary reports about it unless you count my venting in blogs. And when I explain to anyone why I’m so bone-tired, and how the past day was so chaotically-drive-off-a-cliff busy, and how my feet and back and shoulders are killing me from lugging those two precious potato sacks around town, I can’t find the right words to describe the work.
Because all the words I have seem to make it sound value-less. I feel silly when I say that I spent all day washing, drying, and folding cloth diapers, or chasing the babies around the house because it was the only thing that would make them stop crying and whining. That’s work? Yes. Yes, it is.
A friend recommended a book called What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing by Naomi Stadlen. She writes, “Being a mother is more than a role or job description. It doesn’t even describe behavior. Mothers haven’t got a monopoly on motherly behavior. Most people are capable of being motherly. However there is a big difference between being like a mother and being the mother herself…[But] the essentials of mothering are invisible.” Welcome to my life and my work. It’s always open for business. Except that it’s hard to explain it.
But, the thing about being a woman, something that I think is just natural and unique (despite my feminist inclination to not want to generalize about women or men or anyone), though not outside of the realm of men, is that we like to create, and make, and we give birth, and provide new-ness. So, motherhood was an opportunity to re-create myself. My identity. My work. My vocation. My calling. And putting it on paper, or talking about it with others, that helped in the re-invention.
It took a while for me to figure this out as I tried to be something else or despaired that I wasn’t something, someone, or somewhere else in the beginning. I see that, holy man-alive, or ahem, woman-alive, I have much work now. I have responsibilities to this household, and the value is immeasurable. But I have work in communities, too, whether it’s mom groups, college students, or churches. I serve on boards and committees. I mentor. I volunteer. And, back to words again, I write. To survive. To tell the truth. To shape the world for these babies of mine so that one day they will inhabit it and I won’t feel afraid to let them walk on the street because of the way they look different. That work is pretty ongoing right now. I can think of few things more important.
And, no doubt, right now and always, I am and will be a working woman.
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