As I sat down to write a eulogy to my mother who recently passed away, I scratched my head trying to find the many accomplishments in her life. On the surface, I came up with, “She was a devout Catholic, married at age 21, raised four children, was a homemaker who never worked outside the house, and died of old age in a nursing home.” Period. But there had to be something else! And as I plumbed back through the years of my life with her, that “something else” slowly emerged, painful and stark, a tribute to those housewives, househusbands and homemakers who toil without recognition, either in praise or coin, who make trade-offs in favour of selfless service over developing their talents.
My mother’s trade-off was family over artistry. During her life, she painted, sewed, cooked, wrote poetry, built crafts, sang in a band, planted a beautiful garden, raised four gregarious kids, and loved her husband until her strength gave out. But she abandoned the pursuit of her arts at a young age to care for her family in a developing country when not many of the support systems we enjoy today were available. There was no time for much else in those days other than to survive. You grew most of your food, ground your own condiments, cooked three meals a day as refrigeration was suspect due to power blackouts, drew your water at the well, hunted in many stores to find limited supplies that were usually “out of stock” (but magically “in-stock” if some palms were greased), travelled via public transport (operating on irregular schedules due to strikes and mechanical failure) as many couldn’t afford to own a car, stood in lineups that ran around the block to buy staples doled out only with ration cards, washed dirty nappies (Huggies and Pampers were mere gleams in their inventors’ eyes in those days), and slept exhausted at the end of the day with no air conditioning in 30plus degree heat with buzzing mosquitoes determined to suck every ounce of blood from you the minute you dozed. When the seasonal “Mother’s Diseases” swept through our household— chicken pox, mumps, and measles—the kids were lumped together so we could “get it once and for all, and be done with it”; but those outbreaks would last for weeks, and in my case, months. There were also filaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, and dengue fever—diseases endemic in tropical countries—to deal with; I got each one of them, at different times, and Mum kept vigil through each encounter. And the disruptions of the civil wars…let’s not even go there. Battling against this tide was not a paid duty for Mum, nor was it acknowledged, one simply did it by virtue of one’s role as mother, wife and homemaker in a traditional society. And every household had such an unpaid labourer.
The hardest choice for an artist to make is to suppress that which is seeking to express itself. This choice of going without is often made due to the lack of time and focus that art demands of you at the expense of everything and everyone else—family and dependents notwithstanding. There are many artists who committed themselves to their art at the expense of their loved ones—Doris Lessing comes to mind—although usually the choice is made the other way round: nurture overcomes nature. I made a similar choice of denying my art during my career building and family building stages of life and paid the price for it; bad dreams, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and guilt were some of the fallout. And a sense that time was running out. When I finally decided that my art would come first, my family and career fell apart. When my mother had a nervous breakdown in her late thirties, saddled with the kids, the household, and all the other pressures I have mentioned above, we didn’t pause to consider that perhaps it may have been due to the suppression of her artistic drive. When she recovered, she went back to doing what mattered: caring for her family.
When we meet in social settings today, especially in North America, the ice breaker question is “what do you do?” after the customary “how do you do?” greeting. It is embarrassing to say “I am a homemaker,” because the circle around you evaporates rather quickly, and some sniggering takes place out of earshot. And yet, the unpaid labour of homemaking helps keep the human species from dying out and moves evolution along; the homemaker’s hope is that her suppressed talents will take root in a subsequent generation one day and find their flowering there. Many of those sniggerers, be they artists, athletes, politicians or professionals, need only look back to a generation within their own lineage when self-sacrifice by a forebear helped begat them and place them upon their pedestals.
As I now toil at the art of writing in my later years (I am not a poet, nor a craftsperson, nor a gardener, nor a seamster, although I sang in a band and can cook to stave off hunger—so Mum, you’ve outshone me in quite a few areas!), I realize the cost of foregoing a talent in one’s early years, and how much catching up it requires later (sometimes, we never catch up and are “bound the rest of our lives in shallows”). And so I keep at it, if but to make Mum proud and try to redeem at least some of what she forewent. And I realize that I have not put in as much unpaid labour as she did.
As for her unpaid labour—if it could be parsed out of the various places it was applied in and quantified in monetary terms—it would make her a rich woman indeed. I hope her unpaid labour on this mortal plain has a higher value and recognition in the place she in now. And I’d like to raise a glass to all those “unpaid labourers” out there who gave rise to us, and thank them for making it happen.