I’ve been thinking a lot lately about unpaid labour and care work.
My experience with care work started when my mother was dying and I felt compelled- by myself, by my family, and by society in general, to prioritize my young life around caring for her. I used to go with her to chemo appointments, I’d sit with her in her bed and sing to her while she suffered, and I tried to pick up some of the things she’d done before she got sick. With help from my aunts and uncles, my dad and I became a care team. But I was only fourteen, and I didn’t have the capacity to balance that work with forming an identity outside of that. It was all consuming. I stopped playing music and doing theatre. I did well enough in school, but didn’t care to immerse myself fully in anything academically, even though I may have been inclined to. I held down a part time job and did well at it, but it wasn’t my focus. My whole life became care work.
When I fell desperately in love at only eighteen, I did what I had learned to do best: I cared for him. I worked hard to build a life where I’d be able to contribute enough financially and emotionally to support him while he lived his dreams of being a professional musician. I went to school and volunteered with a feminist organization and provided a lot of financial and emotional support for survivors of gender-based violence through fundraising and community outreach. When my friends were struggling with the stress of school or relationships or parents, I was the first one to drop everything I was doing to be there for them. When my partner wanted to move to a small, rural town where he’d grown up, I agreed. After all, I liked the idea of living in a small, artsy town. I liked the idea of building a life where we could raise a family, engage with our hobbies, and maintain humble but generally fulfilling careers.
When we moved, I quickly realized that my single undergraduate degree wasn’t going to get me far in the field I had dreamt of working in. It turns out, social work is a lot more about following government guidelines than actually actively caring for people. In this community, I fought my way into a grassroots charity organization where I attempted to use my creativity and advocacy experience in a way that met their mandate. I attempted this work for years, and when paid opportunities came up, they were never for me. I worked with a few counselling and direct support agencies for minimum wage with no benefits or support, but it wasn’t sustainable physically, emotionally, or financially. I managed a multi-million dollar company for a couple dollars over minimum wage for a few years until I requested some reasonable disability-related accommodations the company refused to meet. So I started working with another multi-million dollar company where I was paid less than what I’d been promised in the interview and was sexually harassed to the point where I no longer felt comfortable making the forty minute commute to be paid $16 an hour.
During this time, I volunteered in my community theatre company and volunteered at a radio station pushing boundaries with a show that addressed topics relating to discrimination, empowerment, recovery, and care. I initiated an annual rally against gender-based violence in my community. I advocated for equality at a municipal level and became a go-to outreach support person for women in my community. And all of this went unpaid.
As I make the transition to motherhood, which has, naturally, been an arduous process, I’m reflecting a lot on my priorities, on where I’m placing my energy, on where I’m at in my life and what this transition means for me in terms of my future. I’m realizing that my failed career paths come down to the fact that, in a world of Bell Let’s Talk days, the society I live in isn’t one that prioritizes active care.
We want to say, “I’m always here to talk with you”, but we rarely know how to practice the kind of active care or advocacy that is required to make a change in a person’s life, and when we do, that work isn’t sustainable under the rule of capitalism. That kind of work doesn’t lead to job opportunities, it doesn’t lead to being able to pay our rent or buy our groceries. It’s no surprise that mental health is poor for almost everyone or that we live in a culture that is deeply traumatized as a baseline. We’re all just trying to make it month to month, day by day.
As a pregnant, disabled woman, I’m in a position where my career won’t be prioritized the same way for quite some time. While I grow this human, while I give birth and attempt to heal my body, while I feed and raise my son, I know from my past experience mothering (because, let’s face it, I’ve been mothering since I was fourteen years old) and from the experiences of mothers around me: this will be all-consuming. So how do I meet the demands of capitalism as a woman who has dedicated her life to unpaid care work so far when I push that boundary further?