All Women’s Work and No Pay:

The Maternal Misfit in the Neoliberal Machine

By Vanessa Olorenshaw

Author of Liberating Motherhood, Birthing the Purplestockings Movement (2016, Womancraft Publishing)

Original illustration by Catherine Watson

Mothers are Other


As a feminist writer, breastfeeding counsellor and activist, I am principally concerned with reproductive issues facing women and the socio-economic penalties against mothers under neoliberal capitalism. Neither socially conservative, nor a liberal feminist, I take a radical and critical look at our socio-political infrastructures, with mothers as a distinct social category. My work over the past few years, and my experience in my career, motherhood and in politics, have led me to the conclusion that mothers are ‘other’ in economics, politics and feminism alike. I argue for the rights of self-determination and economic autonomy for women, which includes the right to engage in family-based caring labour without sacrificing an income or facing penalties for doing so.


 ‘What Do You Do?’


When speaking at events on motherhood, I often ask the following question: ‘Who here works?’ Ten, maybe twenty (depending on the ages of the children) hands tentatively go up. Some of the remaining mothers shift slightly in their seats. Others give a slightly sheepish or embarrassed look. I ask the loaded question because it is the sibling of the dreaded dinner party opening salvo: ‘so, what do you do?’ The question ‘do you work?’ does suggest, in its loaded way, that our worth is fundamentally tied to our employment or career status; the sum of our worth is the sum of our paycheck. For women who care for young children – with no paycheck at all – the message is loud and clear: you are worthless. The dinner party question is symptomatic of our working culture; if you are economically dependent on your partner’s income, your identity becomes categorised under the rubric of the unemployed ‘freeloaders’.


Maternal Politics


At this point I’ll stop and clarify the title of this piece. First: caring work is not ‘women’s work’; it is work that all members of society should engage in as a matter of human compassion and dignity. Second: women must be free and able to experience the same opportunities and wealth of human endeavour as men, both within the public and private sphere. But there’s the rub: women still do the majority of paid and unpaid family care. And then there’s the bruise: as a result of our caring work we are financially disadvantaged and vulnerable socially and within our relationships; this often makes us marginalised politically, socially and economically. While the gender pay gap is real, what is often neglected is the recognition of the maternal income gap. We either have no income at all (being a mother apparently does not deserve pay) or we have a smaller income as a result of part-time work (itself more inclined to lower pay because of the predominance of women in part-time or zero-hours working arrangements).

The ideologies of the left and right differ as to the motivations behind the childcare policies they promote. Conservative ‘family values’ have long decreed that stable family units are the best way to raise children, that (with increasing contradiction) dual income families are ideal for the working class and that only those who can ‘afford it’ may (and should) have a parent (preferably mother) at home raising the children. Finances are a private domestic matter into which the state need not enquire. Caring labour is a private matter, meaning the economic autonomy of women is not considered a priority. At the same time however, neoliberal capitalism also requires a steady stream of vulnerable, low paid workers. Single mothers and working class women are encouraged into the workplace through incentives (subsidised childcare) or sanctions (removal or reduction of benefits). Unlike, say, coal, childcare has become a lucrative industry with a steady stream of renewable resources (children). In essence, choosing to be a mother means you must adapt to whatever the market deems appropriate for your working circumstances/availability. Inevitably, the consequence is that women end up filling the majority of low paid precarious jobs in the UK. A report by the Commission of the European Communities, highlighted the UK as having the fourth largest hourly pay gap out of the 27 EU member states, standing at one third higher than the EU average[i].

On the other side, The Left has always been fighting for the labour rights of workers. However, when it comes to the rights of the unpaid family care worker, we see a peculiar absence as regards to the recognition of their economic identity and status. Indeed, there has been a faithful subscription to our modern economic model which decrees that GDP – as opposed to, say, wellbeing, – is a central concern. The Left must do more, in not only supporting carers in an economic sense, but also in creating a form of social solidarity that changes the identity of caring labour from one of choice and dependence, to that of a noble and invaluable public service – the status currently afforded to nurses and teachers.


Who Cares About Family-based Care-Work?


What is it? Why does it matter? Who does it? What happens if we don’t? Who needs care? In the context of care-work, ‘care’ is about service to others. It is not a feeling, it is an action. Care is not owned. It is given. Yes, we can certainly care about someone: to care about another involves emotion, affection and thought, and it is a significant part of what we do and experience as parents. It is the emotional labour of parenthood. However, when it comes to the work of care, it is a verb and it is a gift. When we care for someone, it is a peculiar and intrinsically human endeavour. So when I write about ‘care’ it is the physical, attentive, affectionate work of care I am talking about. It requires bodily and emotional presence and sensitivity to another’s needs.

So what of the recipients of care? The fact is that those in society who are most in need of care are undoubtedly babies, toddlers, young children and adolescents; postpartum mothers, the sick or disabled; the elderly; and the dying. We will have fallen into most of those categories at some point. Indeed, all of us need care, to greater or lesser degrees, throughout our lives. We all get sick sometimes, or bereaved, or troubled and we depend on someone to help us in our dark hours. We need human connection. Although we might stretch to accept that we were all babies once, we don’t like to admit our inevitable mortality and fragility. However, we must begin to recognise that the need for care is the common denominator of our humanity. Dependency and care are facts of life and a fundamental part of the human condition. The unavoidable truth is that our young are in need of care, and while we might be able to delegate some of this work, they still need their parents: they need to build a relationship, connection and love within their family. We must accept that a crucial aspect of our humanity involves a lifelong process of support and guidance, whereby support and guidance does not end within the limited brackets of maternity pay or a carers allowance; it is a process of development that requires time, presence and commitment. Unlike many things in our consumerist technological culture, we cannot perform virtual care for our children. There is no care remote control. Whilst it has been thoroughly commodified, care has not, as yet, been automated. Indeed, despite the neoliberal pretence that the market is best placed to provide services from care to education, our intimate relationships (in which tenderness, care and love play a central part) cannot be put out to tender. There are limits to the ‘commodification’ of our care-work and the outsourcing of our relationships[ii].

In a 2015 speech, academic Kathleen Lynch asked: “Why is there silence about the emotional labour required to reproduce humanity? … What we now have in effect is a care-less model of citizenship.”[iii] In effect, our culture suffers from ‘who cares? syndrome’. And the answer is, increasingly, nobody cares. And those who do are nobodies. As Martha Fineman notes, “taking care of someone such as a child while they are young, until they ‘become their own person’, is work, represents a major contribution to the society, and should be explicitly recognized as such.”[iv]

In our culture neither care nor carers matter in a political or economic sense, and dependence is viewed as deviant or a shade of frailty. We have to be ‘self-sufficient’; we should be ‘independent’. However, these values simply do not work when we have families. As Lynch and others discuss, we have to recognise the importance of ‘affective equality’ and ‘affective labour’. The ‘affective’ (as opposed to ‘political’, ‘economic’, or ‘socio-cultural’) is “concerned with providing and sustaining relationships of love, care and solidarity”.[v] But instead, this seems invisible or inconsequential for major political parties. What does that tell us? That it doesn’t matter, that it is not valued – that the only equality often discussed is financial or workplace related. However, it is clear that the affective is the important stuff of humanity, which other fields seem to leave to the footnotes. It is what politicians talk about when they talk of the impact of relationship breakdown and of family values on our society, whilst pursuing policies that undermine them.


Alloparents and Delegated Care


We mothers are in a context of contradiction[vi]: we are told that caring for our children is not work, whilst simultaneously our economy produces a multitude of caring jobs and professions in order to facilitate our speedy return to the workplace. This irrationality leaves many women distressed at having to leave their children in the care of others. This is a feminist issue: it is the flipside of the affordable childcare coin. We are told that substitutes — ‘alloparents’, ‘allomothers’* (something discussed by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in Mother Nature), ‘othermothers’ or daycare-workers — should be brought in to care for our children. They are necessary: they are liberation. What does this liberation consist of? Simply the freedom to enter employment (i.e. work that ‘counts’). In other words, we are offered substitute care, rather than support in and remuneration for our own family care work.

The proposed solution to being exhausted with two small children is for us to ‘find ourselves’ (at work) while the professional alloparents takes on the childcare role. However, the solution to feeling depleted and having no time to oneself or ‘something of one’s own’ (closely related to that room Virginia Woolf advocated) is to ‘find a job’, and give that time and energy over to an employer’s control. This is nothing more than papering over the cracks; rather than asking important questions about the distribution of time and tasks (we might, for example, insist that the father step up and do his fair share, or that the family rally round to ensure that the mother has some time for her own pursuits), we are instead blinded by our economic rationale that determines that our only chance of being liberated is to find paid ‘work’. We forget that mothers need support for their work as mothers. In her essay, “‘But She Has a Nanny’ … With Accompanying Eye Roll”, Rebecca Jaremiko Bromwich honestly tells how the “demands of paid work were manageable, it was the unpaid work of bearing children that I couldn’t manage on my own … I needed support in my work”.[vii] A mother’s work is not nine to five. Imagine Dolly Parton’s take: “Working 24/7 what a way to make no money”. Nobody else is expected to work that long, unsupported, unpaid, undervalued and without sufficient rest.

I am therefore challenging the value of alloparents, with regards to the logic of neoliberalism, by which a mother is separated from her young children for regular and/or long periods of time due to economic imperatives (its increasing difficult for a family to meet the financial demands of life on one family members income). I am challenging the notion that it is better for a young child to be placed in a carousel of care than the care of a willing mother. The fact is that alloparents and a ‘village’ have traditionally supported mothers and the work mothers do in mothering. Yet the practice in traditional societies where an allomother takes the child for a short time while the mother does some other work nearby (translated in modern Western culture to the grocery shopping, or doing the laundry, or cooking the family’s meal) is a very different thing from a ten-hour childcare period or night-nurseries in the hands of someone not sufficiently invested in the child, far away from the mother while she works in the market economy – possibly for a pittance. After all, advocates of alloparents are not advocating for allomothers to help with the children while the mother does the housework, or cooks the meal, or washes the clothes; that would be far too helpful, too practical, and – absurd as it sounds – far too radical. The picture we are given instead is one of an institutionalised division: a mother’s place is in the office, a child’s place is in childcare.


Housework Amidst the Heartwork


Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique released us (well, privileged white women, anyway) from a miserable housewifery and launched us into a capitalist mystique. Less well-known is her subsequent work, The Second Stage, in which she argued that the family is the next feminist frontier: how do we recognise the importance and validity of family-based care, and honour and respect the wishes of those who wish to step out of the market workforce for a period of time to care for their children?

For wage-working women who do not have the domestic help (i.e. do not have the “wife-at-home”), they are having to do it all. For them, the equality-project is not liberating but exhausting; hypothetical equality translates into reality as the ‘double day’. For women who alternatively choose housework and family work, the equality-project insists that they are more or less unequal, dependent, parasitic and an embarrassment. One of the lingering stereotypes of mothers who forego market-work for care-work is that they are nothing more than deferential, brain-dead, desperate prisoners of the institution of housewifery. The domestic sphere is seen as thoroughly old-fashioned for modern women, who are prescribed to go for the office job, not the kitchen.

So what a shock it is when women have babies — and become consumed with heartwork but not doing much of the housework in the postpartum period — and wish to define themselves as ‘mothers’, they still find themselves referred to as ‘a housewife’ or, more likely, ‘not working’. The work of the home is often conveniently forgotten as work. But it is important work: if it is not done and children live in squalor then health suffers and all the ill-effects of poverty, including social exclusion, ensue; if we fail to run our errands or do the shopping, we have nothing to eat; if we fail to cook for our family, we starve or we live on takeaways with poor diets. Despite suggestions that the home is the centre of consumption, in reality, the home is very much a unit of production. Anyone who has done housework knows it is tiring and the fatigue and never-ending cycle of tasks has been well documented. It is worthwhile reflecting on the fact that cleaning, ironing, cooking, shopping and laundry has to be done by somebody. The point to be emphasised is that the work of home and care is necessary and – for the time being – irreducible. It is simply not on for women to be expected to do it all, and to be doing it all for free. Because we are still doing most of it or we are responsible for outsourcing it to others. Yes, men are improving their performance of housework – by an incredible one minute per day per year.[viii]

Writer Elizabeth Wurtzel implores, “women were losing their minds pushing mops and strollers all day without a room or a salary of their own … Let’s please be serious grown-ups: real feminists don’t depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money and means of their own”.[ix] The circularity of the argument is intriguing: the work of child-rearing and home does not count as work, therefore society needn’t finally support it; and because it is not paid, it is not work and leads to ‘dependency’ precisely because we refuse to remunerate it in any way.

Women are well aware of the downsides of caring for our children and maintaining the home: we know we risk being ‘put out of a job’ through divorce and being significantly worse off for the rest of our lives as a result; we know that we are up against the ‘maternal clock’ which penalises us for every second that we are out of the workforce. These risks increase personal vulnerability. Certainly we need to enable parents to share care-work, with practical yet flexible arrangements that can work for diverse family setups. However, the focus on workplace participation and equality ignores something crucial: the fact that many mothers want to spend time with their children, many of them exclusively for at least the first few years of life.


What is Work, Anyway?


All this said, many women are understandably suspicious of reducing their relationship with their children and everything they do for them and within the home to ‘work’. ‘Work’ is a controversial term, and not just within feminism or in relation to unwaged domestic labour. For an interesting discussion of the ‘invention of work’ and how it became separated from life, Andre Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason is a useful read.  More recently, Kathi Weeks asks us to think about The Problem with Work. David Frayne explores case studies of the The Refusal of Work. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams discuss full automation and redistribution of wealth in Inventing the Future, Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. My work Liberating Motherhood specifically addresses the issues of reproductive labour and the unwaged work (and devalued market work) of women but should also be seen within this broader critical milieu.

bell hooks argued that “rethinking the meaning of work is an important task for future feminist movement”.[x] The familiar drive to ‘get more women into work’ presupposes that the activities that engage women (read: mothers), and which occupy them outside of the market economy, does not count as work, and is therefore not considered productive or valuable. That only work in the paid economy, i.e. ‘market work’, is to be recognised as work, remunerated or supported. It is no wonder, then, that mothers end up questioning that when everything is for sale, commodifiable and has a price (including labour), why so much of their work goes unrewarded. Society freeloads upon our labour, and has the cheek to deny that that very labour is work.

Many of our day-to-day lives and activities within our societies and communities simply do not seem, under patriarchal, capitalist rules, to qualify as ‘work’ and are thereby denied monetary compensation. For example:


  • Running one’s own business might look like work — but it gets muddy if there is no, or little, turnover or profit. Then, it might just be regarded as a ‘hobby’.


  • Serving someone a cup of tea at a parent and toddler group looks like work — until you see it is all voluntary, done by retired women, and no money changes hands.


  • Supporting fellow mothers in breastfeeding looks like work — until you see the motivation being altruistic compassion and the reward heartfelt gratitude, so that the training and time spent in doing it are seen as leisure.


  • Educating children is work — until you are deemed to be a ‘home educator’ because you are educating your own kids, in which case you are ‘not working’.


Often the common denominator is that, unsurprisingly, the work has traditionally been done by women.

Women — mothers — have always worked (whether on the land, educating their children, in a job or in the home). Whether it has been deemed to count as ‘work’ is another thing; whether it has been understood, under patriarchy, to be worthy of ‘pay’ is yet another. As World Movement of Mothers Europe observes,


“Mothers have always worked, but what has changed is the world around them and the devaluation of the work of caring which they have always done. In the Survey of Mothers in Europe, through their messages to policymakers, mothers are clearly claiming that their devoted unpaid work should be recognised and valued as a vital and irreplaceable investment in the future of society.”[xi]


We remain forced to prove our worth, to protest that we are somehow ‘deserving’. It brings to mind the way in which Victorians used to speak of the deserving and undeserving poor, attitudes that persist within neoliberalism. Work hard and you’ll be a success! Struggle? It’s your fault. Get paid a lot? You must be the pinnacle of virtue and talent. Doing well? You’re a cut above the underclass. Conveniently forgetting about inherited wealth, expensive educations and nepotism. Funny how we never really speak with the same venom about the deserving and undeserving rich, aristocracy and slave-trade heirs. Politicians talk about productivity in terms of ‘hours worked’, money exchanged, and the graft put in, irrespective of the nature of the work we are doing, what we are sacrificing to do it, or the fact that we could probably do it more productively in a shorter time, with more flexible working conditions and greater life satisfaction.

We see the division of market workers on the one hand and invisible ‘others’ on the other – whether they be volunteers, carers, mothers, the ‘unemployed’ and the ‘deviant’. The reality is that, nowadays, we no longer talk about the redistribution of wealth, let alone the redistribution of labour. Yet, when we stop to consider ‘what work is’ and the value of ‘work’, we are confronted with the fact that not all paid work is valuable, not all valuable work is paid, and not all work is valued. Nowhere is this clearer than when we talk about family care. We need to start thinking about this problem in terms of social justice, labour distribution, wealth distribution and the expansion of free time. We have to be creative about what we regard as ‘work’ but also how we approach ‘work’ as a structure, a tie and an obligation. With all this in mind, we have to start to challenge the idea that work is only work when it is paid, done outside the home, contracted, etc. Work is simply not reducible to these narrow categories and a fundamental rethinking of our definitions is long overdue. If we want equality, sisters, we should at least start there.



[i] See Commission of the European Communities (2008), Equality Between Women and Men, Brussels: Commission of the European Communities.

[ii] As Kathleen Lynch and Judy Walsh discuss in Love, Care and Solidarity: What is and is Not Commodifiable in Affective Equality, p 35.

[iii] See

[iv] See Martha Fineman’s The Neutered Mother, p 9.

[v] See Kathleen Lynch’s Affective Equality, p 12.

[vi] See Sharon Hays’ The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.

[vii] In Stay at Home Mothers, Dialogues and Debates, edited by Elizabeth Boyd and Gayle Letherby, p 218.

[viii] See The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Work and Employment, edited by Stephen Edgell, Heidi Gottfried, Edward Granter, p 83. There have been slow improvements in the greater participation in the home, albeit not universally and not in respect to all chores. For a recent study, see Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor. For comparative statistics, see Autonomy’s compiled fact sheet on work and gender.


[x] See Feminism is For Everybody, p 53

[xi] See “Realities of Mothers in Europe, A report by World Movement of Mothers Europe (MMMEurope)” Prepared by Joan Stevens, Julie de Bergeyck & AnneClaire de Liedekerke, pp 21–22.