Musings on the meaning of work

What is work? A place people go to earn money? The thing people do to earn money?

The dictionary says the word work can refer to all of these things:

* Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result
* Mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment
* The place where one is employed
* A task or tasks to be undertaken
* The materials for a task
* Good or moral deeds
* A thing or things done or made; the result of an action
* The operative part of a clock or other machine
* Cosmetic plastic surgery

So it’s a word that has many uses – from “she’s had work done, I’m sure of it” to the reminder I send to my crafting group, reminding them to bring their work with them our next meeting.

It is something we all do, all the time.

And yet, some work is more valuable than others. Some work earns money and praise and gets noticed by the world, and some doesn’t.

When did the world decide that going out and killing buck, or fighting enemies, or slogging it out at the office, were deeds worth honouring? And sweeping and cooking and cleaning and caring for babies were deeds that no one even noticed being done? Why is what happens at home so much less important than things that happen outside of it?

And why in so many places in the world is the work of the home done by women? And if the work they do in the home is not valued, then they themselves are not of value. Or is it that we don’t value the work, and so don’t value the women?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. They plagued that fine writer Ursula le Guin too:

“I always wondered why the makers [storytellers, in the context of the book] leave housekeeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn’t it what all the great wars and battles are fought for — so that at day’s end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tale tells how the Lords of Manva hunted and gathered roots and cooked their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn’t say what their wives and children were living on in their city left ruined and desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house and honoring the gods, the way we did in the siege… When the heroes came back from the mountain, they were welcomed with a feast. I’d like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.”
From Voices (Annals of the Western Shore Book 2)

Terry Pratchett reminds us though that the invisible can be powerful. His character Lu-Tze is a powerful History Monk who can stop time if he chooses. And yet he is a sweeper: “Lu-Tze’s appearance is that of a hunched, harmless old man. He is always smiling and when asked a question he simply nods and continues with whatever he is doing. What he usually does is sweeping the floor. Lu-Tze found out that nobody worries about a sweeper. Sweeping practically makes people invisible, and certainly anonymous.”

Powerful, invisible, undervalued – this is the nature of work done in the home. But I yearn for a world in which all work is valued, in which a clean kitchen is as valuable as a pay-cheque. A world in which chores are a daily walking meditation on the value of life, rather than things we do because we have to do them. A world in which men and women can together clean house and honour the goddesses of the hearth.

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Main picture: Lucas van Oort, Unsplash