Making conversation, Michele A’Court

Past Caring? Women, Work And Emotion
Barbara Brookes, Jane McCabe and Angela Wanhalla
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988531342

Still Counting: Wellbeing, Women’s Work And Policy-making
Marilyn Waring
BWB Texts, $15.00,
ISBN 9781988545530

A few days ago at a book launch (I had written the foreword) a young man who also works in the comedy industry asked what I had been up to so far this year. Not wanting to ruin his party buzz with the real answer, I shrugged a bit and said, “Oh, you know, just the usual bits and pieces.” He smiled sympathetically, muttered something about how nice it must be to take a break – code in our business for, “Shit, sorry you can’t find work” – and wandered off to find someone more full of news to talk to. I slipped off to the bathroom to have a cry before presenting myself once again at the open bar.

What you are supposed to provide over canapés and pinot noir is a brief but solid list of current projects you are being paid to do, the jobs that place you in the world as a productive economic and creative unit. I probably could have listed some if I’d been able to reach into my brain to find them. 

But, the real answer to what I’ve been up to since last October, is caring for my mother until she died in June, and now tidying up her affairs.

That’s a really short sentence which hangs like a veil over the complexities of looking after a family member in end-of-life care. Many of you will know what I mean: finding a bed in a nursing home, applying for WINZ and DHB funding, meeting with family lawyers, arranging hospital appointments, being an advocate with medical staff, picking up prescriptions and green tea and tissues, endless paperwork and, quite often, starting your day with a text that reads, “Today, when you come, would you bring me a banana?” You squeeze in work when you can, cancel the rest, and let go of any resistance to any of it, because you understand that your mother brought you onto this planet, and now it is your job to help ease her off it. And it feels like a privilege, and you feel lost when it is over.

It was against this background that two books about the invisible and unpaid caring work women do – Past Caring? Women, Work And Emotion and Still Counting: Wellbeing, Women’s Work And Policy-making – sat on my bedside table. I’ll be honest and say that I could probably have done with books that didn’t come with bibliographies, glossaries and end notes (I’d recommend Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine at a time like this), but I don’t regret for a second burying my nose in their wisdom and comfort and fire.

Past Caring? was born out of a national conference on women’s history at the University of Otago in 2016 in which writer and historian Barbara Brookes delivered such an inspiring opening keynote address it fired up a whole team of women to write and curate enough essays on the history and meaning of women’s caring work to fill a book.

The title for that 2016 conference had been Making Women Visible and that’s also a major driver for this book. All too often, women are missing from historical records. Early missionaries, for example, were required to write reports on their work, but the work performed by “the missionary wife” was unofficial and unrecorded. These essays do a remarkable job of rectifying that, presenting us with narratives and photographs so that we begin to see our grandmothers, and mothers, and ourselves. These are the kinds of stories we might have shared within our own families, but haven’t shared on the public page. We have been visible to ourselves, but invisible to each other.

It is a serious book meant, I am sure, for historians, academics and policy makers, rather than your neighbourhood book club. Described in the introduction as “a patchwork quilt” – a fair description of quite separate chapter topics by 11 writers, stitched together with common philosophical threads – it is in no way a cobbled-together amateur-handcraft that a non-quilter might assume. 

Each chapter begins with its author saying something along the lines of, “This is what this chapter is about” and ends with a summary and a comprehensive list of source notes. I will admit that the first couple of chapters were so steeped in formal academic language I initially found it a tough nut to crack. There are references to theories and theorists I am entirely unfamiliar with and occasionally I felt like I’d found myself in one of those conversations where you smile and nod, and hope everything will become clear before it’s your turn to speak.

There are, for example, two important New Zealand theorists who clearly everyone in the book has heard of because they keep mentioning their names. Which is great – it is a fine thing that they are all on the same page and keep addressing the same debate, and clearly have been having chats with each other during the writing process. The first is Annette Baier, a moral philosopher and a key “ethic of care” theorist. In the other corner, there’s Susan Moller Okin, a proponent of the “ethic of justice”. While both Baier and Okin agree that a woman’s perspective needs to be incorporated into the traditional philosophical and political theories of care and that women’s voices are largely absent from mainstream debate about how to do it, value it and pay for it, it seems they represent different solutions. Baier believes we should give greater value to what women are naturally good at (caring is a feminine thing, we just need to give it the esteem it deserves), while Okin believes we should take gender out of it entirely and involve both men and women in care – that’s how we will come to value caring properly, and develop a more equal and equitable society.

Whether or not I’ve summarised the Baier vs Okin philosophy correctly, it was a useful idea to roll around in my head, and something I often ponder in general feminist terms: whether we should celebrate women for our “nurturing superpowers”; or whether doing that ends up confining us to nurturing roles, and we’d be better to insist all genders dig deep to find and use their ability to care. More than once while reading specific stories in this book, it occurred to me that girls who are cared for grow up to be carers, while boys who are cared for grow up to … expect to be cared for. And that somewhere in that process there needs to be a change.

As a non-academic, where this book really sings is in the detailed personal narratives: the grandmother who spent almost all her life caring for whānau in her papakāinga in Panguru; the ayah who cared for the children of British families in India; and New Zealand women who had children to American servicemen during WWII. There is also a delightful chapter, beautiful illustrated with photographs, about the clothes that are stitched and knitted together with love and handed down the generations; and another about the way women – Māori, Pākehā, rural, urban – have lived with deciding what the hell to cook for dinner. 

There are fascinating morsels of information everywhere – like the time the Māori Women’s Welfare League successfully campaigned to have 38,000 copies of “Washday At The Pā” withdrawn from schools because in 1964 social worth was equated with modernity, and there were too many photos of Māori women cooking on a wood range. And other titbits, like the fact that Māori women who had children with American servicemen in the 1940s were not allowed to join the fathers in the States because they were insufficiently white to meet immigration criteria.

In their introduction, Brookes, McCabe and Wanhalla say they want this volume to “instigate a conversation” and it does – there are many things here I want us to keep talking about. One chapter that strongly resonated for me is Bronwyn Polaschek’s on the film industry in Aotearoa New Zealand, and her thesis – well-argued – that if one recurring theme to our movies has been “man alone”, then another is “mother alone” – women finding ways to survive and flourish outside of a nuclear family construct. It was a revelation.

If Past Caring? is a patchwork quilt you could enjoy studying over pots of tea, then Marilyn Waring’s Still Counting feels like it should be read while slamming double-pours of whisky. The first note I made – barely half-a-dozen pages in – was, “She’s still angry – glad that she is, sorry that she has to be.”

One of those wonderful little BWB Texts – short books on big subjects – it is a 2018 sequel to Professor Waring’s 1988 book Counting For Nothing (and the documentary Who’s Counting? in 1995). Counting For Nothing argued that traditional ways of determining economic success (largely gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the increase in the number of transactions in which money changes hands) left women and their unpaid labour invisible, and therefore ignored, when it came to policy-making.

Still Counting is not just an update – it is also a robust fist-shake (if not a fierce middle-finger) at the New Zealand Treasury who, Waring argues, are missing a vital opportunity that will not come again for 60 years.

Treasury announced in 2017 that they were updating their Living Standards Framework (LSF) so that they could measure our nation’s wellbeing, using the OECD’s indicator set. We also have a prime minister who wants “wellbeing” to be an important part of how we measure our economic success from now on.

Problem is, Waring argues, that OECD model won’t work here – it’s still tied to GDP, which is a terrible way to measure a nation’s wellness (even if if was based on good data, which it is not), and few countries comply with the data gathering rules which makes the “comparative” aspect fairly useless. Plus, GDP is blind to the distribution of wealth and poverty – you can have high GDP while portions of your population live in appalling poverty. It’s also worth remembering, she notes, that war and terrorism boost GDP but do bugger-all for citizens’ wellbeing.

More reasons: a European-based system like the OECD’s wellbeing framework doesn’t factor in the importance of preservation of endangered species as a priority for intergenerational equity – not a big deal maybe in some European countries, but a hell of an issue here and in Australia.

Instead, Waring offers a myriad alternative ways of measuring wellbeing – some international (Canada, Australia, Vanuatu, Bhutan, Sweden, Finland) and a few entirely local, like Te Kupenga survey which meaningfully measures Māori wellbeing. None of which models, she says, appear to have troubled the minds of our Treasury boffins.

There is a palpable “we are running out of time” and “going to hell in a handbasket” tone to the writing, but Waring is also funny and sharp. Economists who misuse terms like environment and ecosystem, and invent phrases like “natural capital”, haven’t “watched enough David Attenborough programmes”.

There is hope if we hurry. I took a long moment to savour the work Waring highlights of New Zealand economists Paul Dalziel and Caroline Saunders, who have specified five principles which should underlie wellbeing economics. 

Principle 1. The purpose of economic activity is to promote the wellbeing of persons.

Principle 2. The wellbeing of persons is related to their capabilities to lead the kinds of lives they value and have reason to value.

Principle 3. Economic policies should expand the substantive freedom of persons to lead the kinds of lives they value and have reason to value.

Principle 4. Wellbeing is created through persons making time-use choices they judge will contribute to leading the kinds of lives they value.

Principle 5: Market production should enable persons to add value to the kinds of lives they value.

OK, the lines might lack a little poetry, but they’re still a breath of fresh air. And woven among those principles I can see the places where caring for my mother sits. Visible, and valued. If we arranged our economic and social lives this way, you could talk about it at a party.

Michele A’Court is a writer and comedian.

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Posted in Essays, Gender, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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