Wages for Self Care: What Falls Apart When We Demand Compensation for Unpaid Reproductive Labor?
I spent $5,000 a year on therapy while I worked at a rape crisis center. My therapist got well over 10% of my income each year; a tithe to her painstaking work re-teaching me that it was safe to be mindful of my body, even in the face of devastating trauma.
While my therapy work addressed my own past trauma, this trauma was violently yanked forward to the front of my consciousness from facing day after day the trauma of sexual violence. Sometimes called vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, or compassion fatigue, it was a common ailment in the industry. Everyone knew it was part of the job when you worked with sexual violence – you had to be vigilant about self care or you’d burn out. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Meditate. Practice yoga. Do things that bring you joy. When it gets too hard or too close to your own trauma, go to therapy.
As a supervisor, I felt dissonance when encouraging other staff members to take care of themselves when they were falling apart. I wondered: If self care is so essential to the job, shouldn’t it be *part* of the job? When therapy is needed to cope with vicarious trauma, shouldn’t it be paid for by the organization AND be on the clock?
Unpaid reproductive labor, according to Silvia Federici and other Marxist feminists, is the unpaid care work that capitalism depends on to ensure workers keep showing up day after day. As part of the “Wages for Housework” campaign in the 1970s, feminists made visible the labor that women were doing in homes – “cooking, smiling, fucking” – to ensure workers would show up the next day, with energy for the job. In the anti-violence field, self care felt like this – unpaid care work that my organization depended on me doing on my own dime so I could show up to work functional, and face again and again the dysfunction of trauma.
In demanding wages for housework, these activists were less interested in the actual wages than in the revolutionary potential for recognizing unpaid reproductive labor:
We struggle to break capital’s plan for women, which is an essential moment of that division of labor and social power within the working class through which capital has been able to maintain its hegemony. Wages for housework, then, is a revolutionary demand not because by itself it destroys capital, but because it forces capital to restructure social relations in terms more favorable to us and consequently more favorable to the unity of the class” – Silvia Federici, from Wages Against Housework, 1975; reprinted in Revolution at Point Zero
In naming self care work in the anti-violence industry as unpaid reproductive labor, I’m not so much interested in having my therapy paid for and required by my employer. I can only shudder at the ways that would turn into a new Orwelian technology for surveilling my mental health and judging me unfit for duty if I rabble roused too much.
However, studying these pockets of “stolen time” provides insight into how capitalism works to separate us into individuals responsible for ourselves, rather than a collective force responsible for each other, together powerful enough to challenge the 1%.
What falls apart if we stop reading compassion fatigue as a sign that an individual needs to take better care of herself? What if we instead read it as feedback that we need to restructure our relationship to the work, and looked for structural and collective solutions to overwhelm?
Now when I’m faced with burnout, I look to see how the work itself is a set up, designed to be unsustainable with a too urgent pace and not enough resources. I’m inspired by engaged Buddhist, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, and the 500 Year Peace Plan developed by Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya movement:
“Peace is not something that happens at a peace conference, or with the signing of documents …. The seeds of the present conflict in Sri Lanka were planted 500 years ago; it will take at least that long to correct the damage.” – Sarvodaya’s 500 Year Peace Plan
This requires an expansion of vision toward building a movement to end violence, in the face of state funding that would prefer to keep us focused on the exhausting work of helping victim after victim that walk through our doors. Like the feminists who first started anti-violence organizations, when our work to end sexual violence is part of building a movement, our primary work includes:
- building a base of people who contribute time, talents, and money to the cause
- developing new leaders who can help these committed people work together
- collectively envisioning a new world without sexual violence
- devising our 500 (or 5000?) year plan of the step-by-step work that will be required to get us there
Even if anti-violence work isn’t your particular offering to the world, I’m curious to know more about where you find unpaid reproductive labor in your work life and activist life, and the ways that leads to burnout and overwhelm. What happens if you drop the insinuation that this is your personal problem to resolve through therapy or stepping up your meditation practice? Under investigation, does it instead indicate a pervasive problem that requires an entire restructuring of social relations, toward unity? I’d love to hear about your own investigations in the comments.
Top photo adapted from: “barefoot and pregnant” by majcher