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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?

Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne

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

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Comments (11)

  • Rachel

    Thank you, Dawn, for raising these important issues! I am guessing I am not the only one who has been reluctant to call out the non-profit sector – and yet, as your article so eloquently points out, they are helping maintain the system that stinks of violence. Instead of dismantling patriarchy, individual victims are helped. While that is, of course, crucial (I am convinced I wouldn’t be here to type this if it weren’t for such help!), it cannot be the end point if we are truly interested in ending violence.

    Your article also reminds me of a comment I made after spending an hour or so giving empathy (for free) to a friend: Instead of giving her empathy for her anxiety about surviving, it would be so much more helpful if we had a Basic Income Guarantee! In other words: These one-on-one solutions miss the systemic issues. And as long as we only focus on self-care as an individual thing, we perpetuate the system that stinks!

  • Mushim

    Great essay, Dawn. Thank you. I am 59 and was in undergraduate college at what was considered a fairly “radical” institution of higher learning (Oberlin College) during the “wages for housework” movement. There has never been any question in my mind about the need for all forms of human labor to be recognized.

    I for one do not need any convincing that we in the U.S. are part of many systems that stink, and that we are oppressed by many systems that stink. Therefore, what I am primarily interested in right now, speaking only for myself, is seeing in-depth descriptions of systems that do not stink. They don’t need to be perfect — I don’t think that’s possible — but at least viable and proven somewhat to have worked in real life. My own experience is very limited. It’s obvious to me that we have a health care crisis in the U.S. I wonder how it would be to live in a nation that has socialized medicine, for instance — how well do these systems work, and how are they paid for? (I’m wondering about Canada, specifically.)

    Medical and dental care are, in my p.o.v., the supreme koans to crack. Some years ago I was on the phone with a staff member of Interfaith Worker Justice. He said he and his partner had been part of a collective who rented several townhouses in the Washington, D.C. area, and pooled all their income. Everyone received an equal small stipend for personal expenses, and they of course bought and cooked food, cleaned, and shared other chores equally. He said they were poor but things worked pretty well, until they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve and the community disbanded. I immediately said, “Probably medical insurance and care.” He was startled, then said, “How did you know? You’re exactly right. We couldn’t afford medical insurance for everyone, and during the time we were together people were aging and requiring medications, some of which were very expensive. So then they needed to ask for more personal stipend. We couldn’t afford for people not to have medical insurance because then one accident or illness could have ended up bankrupting the entire community.”

    So, in terms of creating alternative systems that smell better, medical and dental care are bottom lines that have driven people back into the mainstream system, or that keep them there. Interestingly, I was just part of a Facebook conversation on the ever-lively and wisdom-laden page of Sage Raven Mahosadha, on the question of how people can lead humane, sustainable lives doing work that contributes to the healing of the world, and a common theme that emerged at the get-go was aging and the problem of medical insurance. It is completely possible to simplify one’s lifestyle radically (eat beans and rice; get clothes at thrift stores; use the library, etc.) in order to free up time to be used to create art, help people, play with children, relax and exercise, but not being medically insured is a constant stressor and a major one at that. I speak from personal experience, and I haven’t yet seen many systems-based answers. That’s what I’m looking for as a thread in this dialogue!

  • Dawn Haney

    Thanks Rachel & Mushim! Interesting thoughts, all around!

    Rachel, I’m glad you made clear the point that the individual help is, in fact, essential to many of us. My understanding of the early days of rape crisis centers is that many of them formed out of the consciousness-raising women’s groups of the 1970s. People saw that violence was a common theme coming up for women, and providing services for individuals was theorized as a way to talk with more women and help them see their individual problem with violence as a collective problem with patriarchy. The shifts toward government funding in the 1980s (with the Victims of Crime Act, passed after Reagan was shot) and the 1990s (with the Violence Against Women Act) moved rape crisis centers away from addressing patriarchy, toward helping individual women interact with the woefully inadequate criminal justice system. (Some of this history is available in Incite Women of Color Against Violence, and in Confronting Rape: The Feminist Anti-Rape Movement and the State by Nancy Matthews).

    Mushim, it’s interesting you bring up health care – my doctor at that time was part of a movement to end dependence on the insurance game. Along with some other docs across the country, she stopping taking any private insurance (dropping the immense headache of interacting with those systems), and instead went to a yearly fee-based system. I don’t remember all the details, but she had a “plan” for if you were mostly healthy but wanted to do preventive care and be able to come in if you were sick, and another plan that included regular visits if you had some chronic health issues you wanted her help managing (diabetes, chronic pain, etc). It wasn’t a perfect system (she couldn’t help you if you cut your leg off and needed to go to an emergency room), but I appreciated so much how dropping the insurance racket improved her ability to care for patients, particularly with preventive care and chronic illness management, and her overhead costs dropped significantly as she no longer had to pay someone just to manage the insurance claims.

    I was also going to include a story (which now will get told in the comments) of an employee who requested that we drop her organization-paid health insurance and instead give her more pay so she could decide the best ways to take care of herself. It was an interesting challenge for me, as I think offering health care can be an important component of an organizations care of their employees (especially health care that at least pays a portion of mental health care for employees who are going to be dealing with vicarious trauma). But who am I to say that Western medicine is the best way to offer health care? I’m certainly not convinced that it is, so it was hard to argue that she had to keep her health care. Of course, the little bit of added salary STILL was barely enough to live on. As Rachel says, if there’s not a basic income guarantee, isn’t everything we’re doing just a stop gap measure to try to help people deal with the fact that they can’t make it under capitalism?

  • Jeff

    There are a few islands of personal wellness out there in the vast ocean of shockingly poor public health, neglect, and medical bankruptcy. I think we agree that the former needs to be available to ALL of us. The best place to start is surgically excising profit-mongers from health care, with firm compassion of course.

    The best “medicine” (besides food, shelter, work, rest, etc) is yet to be determined, but I believe impartial science in the public interest can answer that question as we build a better System. Thanks.

  • Dawn Haney

    Jeff, I like this: “The best place to start is surgically excising profit-mongers from health care, with firm compassion of course.”

    This is at the heart of what my doctor was trying to do, and there was a way that just knowing my doctor could focus on what was best for my health (rather than what was best profit for insurance companies) made me feel better already. She sent to a massage therapist for my pinched nerve in my shoulders, and she didn’t have to fight anyone to do that instead of put me on drugs or recommend me to try surgery.

    And I loved being part of what felt like a radical shift in health care!

  • Jeff

    Dawn, on the other end of the stethoscope, I feel so fulfilled when we succeed in a safe effective treatment without having to sneak past Medical Industry watchdogs! Sadly, this happens less and less. Staying healthy should be fun, or at least not awful, yes?

    At your leisure (when you get past the mountain of tasks) –

  • Dawn Haney

    Interesting review Jeff, thanks for sharing it here.

    These two sentences point to a potential health care policy shift that makes my skin crawl: “Employees are rewarded for passing or improving each test (such as losing weight) by a reduction in their insurance premiums. These changes are ‘primarily targeted at our 30,000 nonunion workforce.'”

    I come from good Midwestern stock. I’ve completed badass road bike races, yet even at my fittest, I was still classified as obese by Western medicine. My blood work shows me in good health, yet most wellness programs have an obsession with the number on the scale and would classify me as a bad worker who is costing the company too much money. Without union protection, this sounds like another excuse to fire me for being fat (not that that doesn’t already happen with the extreme fat phobia that exists).

    This is the creepy Orwellian surveillance that I worry we could move to in an effort to focus on prevention – daily weigh-ins when we show up to work to determine whether we are worthy or unworthy as humans.

    As you point to as well, who even has access to good food and safe movement options? I’m not even talking about local organic non-GMO produce, I’m talking about who doesn’t even have grocery stores in their neighborhoods? Who has safe streets to walk on? Who gets shot by cops for looking suspicious when running down the street?

    I long to see a move to prevention-oriented health care that doesn’t shame people for “not taking good care of themselves.”

  • Shodo

    I love this thread. I remember Wages for Housework – was in Movement for a New Society when it came around. And I just refused Medicare Part B because it costs over $100 a month. That’s what I pay my homeopath I need that money to take care of myself, but I did think it would be really nice to be able to see a regular doctor too once I turn 65.
    Sometimes sanghas get the idea “We can’t pay you a salary but we can get you medical insurance.” When that idea comes around me, I try to keep the blowup moderate. I could use those hundreds of dollars for good food.

    This line is just above: ‘I long to see a move to prevention-oriented health care that doesn’t shame people for “not taking good care of themselves.”’ Will never happen as long as health care is in the dominant paradigm. I’m guilty of it too: forgetting that too many people have poor health because of their neighborhood or job or violence or lack of access to decent food. (And if you want non-GMO food, that’s almost everyone. My checkbook tells me that. My health too is class privilege.)
    The original post, on compassion fatigue: I remember when we started rape crisis shelters, then shelters for battered women. They were radical, and the workers went broke. Then they became social service. It’s funny how many social workers are radical inside and work in a pacification system to make a living. I found that out when I became a social worker. I particularly related to the story of paying a tenth of income for therapy. Been there, done that – it was more like 20%, if memory serves me. When a therapist, I worked in the clinics where you could go for free (guess what they paid) but there aren’t any now. Emergency room, I guess, and medication. The secret: a lot of successful therapists are seeing a few people for free or for very little. They can’t afford to advertise it.

  • Maia Duerr / The Jizo Chronicles

    What a great article and conversation following it… I wish I had some answers, I don’t, but I am so much appreciating what’s being shared here. I am reminded of the Mutual Aid and Pleasure Societies of Black New Orleans… another way to create a parallel system where people take care of each other and pool resources to provide for some essential services. See

  • Minisite Design

    Excellent web site. A lot of useful information here.
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    And obviously, thank you to your effort!

  • Susmita Barua

    This conversation touches a lot of bases. Addressing basic human needs of food, shelter, healthcare, clean water, education locally and globally is falling more and more outside of the perpetual growth imperative of profit driven free market capitalism. There needs to be some mechanism to distribute the harvests of mother nature, human labor and innovation to all human beings including children, teen, elders, mothers, household caregivers and unpaid volunteers of all kind. Basic Income ( i call basic living grant) provides a means to develop sustainable steady state system. See more

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