Unpaid Work

By Kelly McDonald



This morning began as every normal weekday morning does—a three-mile walk in the neighborhood, despite what the weather may be. I dressed in my appropriate attire: knee braces, bib overalls, a hooded sweatshirt to turn back the morning chill on this early May 10 morning. Finally, I finished my walking outfit with a running hat and shoes left over from my recently abandoned morning runs, which ended because of my increasing age, I keep telling myself.

As I left the house, I selected my listening choice, The Moment of Lift, written by Melinda Gates. She described her work with the Gates Foundation, helping to overcome the challenges experienced by women and girls, especially in societies outside of the US.

I listened while I walked, secure in the thoughts that I was sensitive to the plights of these women in foreign cultures. Suddenly, Melinda’s topic location changed from a distant nation in Africa or the Middle East to here in the United States. She focused on the disparity between men and women in what she labeled as the amount of “unpaid work” they performed. This work, normally done around the home and for family, included cooking, cleaning, assisting children, and many other domestic duties.

Her description pricked my heart. Although I had performed plenty of unpaid work in our home over the forty-seven years of our marriage, after listening to Melinda’s descriptive examples, I was certain that Beverly’s tally of unpaid work clearly exceeded mine, perhaps by orders of magnitude.

While listening, I recalled the early days when I returned home from my office work. I could see in Beverly’s eyes that she hadn’t loved her at-home experience that day. With seven children running helter-skelter, even then I recognized, but perhaps didn’t fully appreciate, the parenting challenges she had experienced while I was away.

As I walked up Canyon Road, attentive enough to stay out of traffic, surrounded by the early summer morning and its brightness, my mind was far away, pondering the significance of Melinda’s words to me, echoing in my ear. “For women who spend all their hours doing unpaid work, the chores of the day kill the dreams of a lifetime.”

I turned the corner to return home via Timpview Drive. Melinda’s examples of unpaid work disparity became more specific. She described that even in households where both partners are helpful, the woman usually bears the major burden of food preparation and childcare. This observation is especially true for tasks such as laundry or home cleanup. Surely I must have recognized signs of Beverly’s plight, a forced smile, a quiver in her voice, and I had pitched in to help whenever I could. But the memories of traveling for my work—sometimes for a week at a time—haunted me. Beverly stalwartly related her experiences to me when I returned, describing her life with the kids while I was away. But, I’m certain she held back some of the major frustrations, cleaning up after a sick child, endless dirty diapers, and other despair that may have laced her week of parenting alone.

When our youngest son turned sixteen, Beverly secured a job outside our home. She went to work at the Missionary Training Center as a receptionist in the medical office. After her day at work, however, she jumped back into her longtime role as mother and homemaker, never leaving some pending task undone.

As I continued my walk down Timpview Drive, I tried to take a mental inventory of the times that I had jumped in to help after arriving home from my own work. If a child was crying, I took time to comfort them. I often left the dinner table a little early to begin the meal cleanup. I like to think that I made a difference. But I’m not sure how much.

As I finally reached 350 East, my home a distant view at the end of the street, Melinda’s narration had moved to other topics. But I was lost in my thoughts. Perhaps I had somehow missed the opportunities to be more helpful in my own home. As I opened my garage door and walked into the kitchen, I switched off the audiobook, leaving its new topics for another day. Our home was quiet. Beverly was still upstairs. I removed my walking shoes and knee braces. Almost without thinking, perhaps on impulse, I opened the dishwasher and began moving its cleansed contents to their respective cupboard locations. As I finished this small domestic duty, Beverly came down the stairs and, with a smile, put her arm around me and thanked me for my unrequested help.


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