RETURNING TO PAID WORK?
These conflicts about the value of unpaid labor also emerged when I asked them about returning to paid work. Again, these women were highly educated, and almost all had had lucrative jobs prior to or even after having children. Several liked earning their own money. Others spoke about the intellectual challenges of their jobs or said they missed the camaraderie of the workplace. Some wanted an identity beyond mothering.
But, most important in terms of the morally legitimate status of paid work, they wanted to be “productive” and to “contribute” to the household, which seemed to mean earning money. Julia, a mother of two married to an entrepreneur, said, “I keep wondering about [going back to work], just ’cause my kids are getting older. I’m like, well, I’m not going to be a housewife forever. It’s not my personality to just have the kids go to school and still not do anything. I’m not the person that goes and gets my hair done and my nails. I just don’t do that. . . . I’d want to be productive and bringing something in. And so I’ve really been trying to figure out what that next thing is going to be.” Julia distances herself from the stereotype of the stay-at- home mother as the unproductive, self-indulgent consumer. While it feels legitimate to her to be taking care of her kids while they are small, she doesn’t want to “not do anything” or to focus only on her appearance.
Although these women also try to value their unpaid labor symbolically, the idea of contributing financially is still powerful. As we will see in chapter 5, sometimes the value of the unpaid “contribution” becomes a bone of contention between husbands and stay- at-home wives. Yet despite these women’s desire to contribute, the lack of economic necessity meant that their standards for paid work were high. They did not want work that was too time-consuming or inflexible. Most did not want to go back to reporting to a boss or serving demanding clients; some were not interested in returning to the corporate world. Some women said they would probably just continue to volunteer, which gave them the same social and intellectual rewards as work, without the money. Others imagined starting a business; a few talked about tutoring or otherwise working with kids. But it seemed unlikely that most would return to full-time paid work.
Here, again, the possibility of cultivating a hard-working self in the absence of actual paid work arose. Lucy was happy being at home with her small children, but she was thinking about the “next step.” Partly, she wanted to work for pay because “I need another way to fulfill myself.” And, she added, “there’s also kind of just showing a work ethic, I think, to my kids.” On the other hand, she thought she herself had a good work ethic even though her mother had not worked outside the home. She said, “I’m very committed. I’m a great worker. I’m loyal. You know, I get what it means to get up every day and do that. I totally get that. But my mother never worked. So I got that somehow in a house without my mother working.” This notion leaves the door open for her not to work but still to be able to instill a solid work ethic in her children, which is a crucial part of being a good mother. Again, in a sense the mindset matters more than the work itself, because one’s identity as a worker who “get[s] what it means to get up every day and do that” can be split off from one’s actual work.
The idea of productive work looms large for these affluent New Yorkers. Some interviewees—those with a lot of earned wealth- use it as an empirical explanation of privilege (“I have what I have because I worked hard”). Many also recognize the role of luck, though rarely that of structural advantages. But, more important, hard work is a key element of inhabiting the worthy self for everyone I spoke with (“I deserve what I have because I work hard”). The most legitimate work is paid work, especially highly paid work, which is tied not only to effort but to individual selfsufficiency. Even the notion of being financially “at risk,” while anxiety-producing, reinforces this idea of individual (usually male) responsibility.27 The people I talked to who are more distant from paid work struggle with feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and dependency rather than anxiety. They create symbolic proximity to paid labor by alluding to work they have done in the past, that other people close to them do, or that they know how to do. To understand that work matters, to be able to work, and to be prudent can form part of a “mindset” of the deserving self even in the absence of paid work.
At the same time, to be hard-working is not the only feature of the deserving self. We have already seen here that the concept of hard work is twinned with that of prudence. Both are forms of disciplined—rather than self-indulgent-action. Together, these behaviors legitimate accumulation, not by indicating that one is chosen by God, as in the Protestant ethic, but by indicating that one is morally worthy. Chapter 3 develops the idea of prudence as it fits into a narrative of reasonable spending for earners, inheritors, and stay-at-home parents alike.