What is work?

From a What’s App exchange I had last week with someone I hadn’t been in touch with for a while.

Questioner:   How are you? Are you working? How’s the family doing?

Me:  I am working as a family support worker. Great fun, exhausting, learning a lot.

Questioner:  Fantastic! What setting do you work in? Family centre? Is it local authority or private/charity sector?

I’ve long been curious about assumptions around ‘work’.  In my experience people (like this questioner) assume that ‘work’ means some form of paid employment.   When filling in forms, or when people ask me what I do, I never describe myself as ‘unemployed’, or ‘retired’.  I always tick the box self-employed.

Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Toads’ is strong on the connection between ‘work’ and payment.   It opens with

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

But to view work only in relation to payment demeans the value of work in all its other forms.   It isn’t just about being paid, it is about doing something that, ‘can be summed into seven viewpoints: Continuous activity, productive, requiring physical and mental exertion, has psycho-social aspects, is performed on a regular basis, requires a degree of restraint, and can be performed for personal purpose’. (Petty, G.C., Brewer, E.W. & Brown, B.)

The idea of ‘personal purpose’ allows other views on what work is and what it is ‘for’.  As almost an opposite to Philip Larkin, Kahlil Gibran says ‘Work is love made visible’,  and continues,  ‘And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.’

I am not in any form of paid employment.  Yet I am gainfully employed. I work.  What I do illustrates the seven viewpoints in the definition of work above.

Continuous activity:  My main work is, as described, a family support worker.  My typical weekday involves picking up two children, taking one to school – this one is in full time school 09:00 – 15:15.  The second child is in afternoon only school 12:30 – 1500.  So having dropped off older child, younger child comes with me for the morning and we do some activities together – baking, library, reading stories, playdough, jigsaws, drawing, etc.   My manager, child’s mother, likes me to send regular pictures of what’s going on so she can monitor performance and query things ‘Why isn’t she wearing her coat?’ or comment positively, ‘Wow, busy – biscuits look great’.

I take younger child to afternoon school and at the end of the school day pick up both children and take them home with me, ensuring that they are fed, sometimes giving them a bath, doing various activities with the two of them (as above) and then taking them home when their parents arrive home.

Productive:  who’s to say whether time spent with grandchildren is ‘productive’?  It depends on viewpoints and expectations.  There’s “now a growing body of research that illustrates that grandparent involvement [in their grandchildren’s care and upbringing] is associated with improved mental health, improved resilience and pro-social behaviour in grandchildren.”  (Ann Buchanan & Anna Rotkirch (2018) Twenty-first century grandparents: global perspectives on changing roles and consequences).   So, my work may be productive for my grandchildren.  It is, almost certainly, productive as far as my daughter is concerned.  It enables her to go to (paid) work, and minimises the load of her having to find childcare with its associated expense and lack of flexibility.   (The average cost of sending a child under two to a nursery for 25 hours per week, part-time, has risen to £7,212 in 2022, compared to £7,160 in 2021.)

Requiring physical and mental exertion:  Yes,  lifting children, buggies, assorted paraphernalia, on and off buses, into supermarket trollies,  and onto swings is a physical workout most days.  Mental exertion is part and parcel of the role – my negotiation and influencing skills are getting sharper by the day, I’m learning many new things, yesterday’s learning load included – how worms wiggle, how did people land on the moon,  what’s the difference between a bee and a wasp,  why do people drop litter, how do animals talk to each other? 

Has psycho-social aspects – a term used to describe the influences of social factors on an individual’s mental health and behaviour.   My work clearly has pyscho-social aspects, for me and for the grandchildren.  I interact with other carers in the school yard, and with people at the gym classes, the trampolining sessions, the soft play, the park playgrounds, and all the other venues where I go with the children.  The children interact with other children and with the other carers.  I remember seeing the older child jealously (and furiously) guarding ‘his’ giant inflatable tortoise in the soft play a couple of years ago and a few days ago offering to share and take turns with the same thing.   He’s learning pyscho-social skills!

Is performed on a regular basis:  Yes, pretty much daily.  I have the term dates with INSET days pinned on my notice board.   The school runs are fairly consistent.  School holidays mean more interactions and flexibilities.  My related work includes mending clothes – lots of trousers with patches, sometimes washing children’s clothes, being on call if they are sick, taking them to various after school things, and so on. 

Requires a degree of restraint:  Yes, indeed.  I am continuously having to restrain myself from outbursts of comments on the way things are done in their household.  I have a running ticker-tape that goes ‘I am not their parent.  The parents are in charge.  They do things differently from me.’   As the research paper notes, “Another key rule in many other contemporary Western societies appears to be ‘noninterference’ (Harper & Ruicheva, 2010). Grandparents should not undermine the parents’  relationships with their children.”

Can be performed for personal purpose:  This is what I love about my work.  I do it because ‘being there’ for my daughter and her family is such a joy.  It’s a delight.  I wouldn’t have it differently.  In a sense it is this work, as Gibran says love made visible.   Someone sent me an article written by a grandfather expressing, brilliantly, similar feelings to mine.  “Is grandparenthood an absolute scream?”  he asks, “Yes, is the answer. How I envy people who are about to get the whole miraculous, hilarious surprise of it all, right in the face, for the first time.”

Daily grandparenting is work, no doubt about that.  There’s no monetary payment for it, but it is adding value to the economy, society and to individuals. It’s time to value any work, not only grandparenting, that is rewarded in ways other than monetary, and not assume that unpaid work isn’t real work.   

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: