Amongst first time mothers, and those with young children, there is a great deal of anxiety about stepping out of the workforce to care for kids or others who need care. Will you be able to re-enter the workplace when you are ready? Will you fall behind others in your profession? Will your skills become outdated? Driving this is an awareness of the vulnerable position one adopts by exposing oneself to “unemployability” in the long term.

The Women’s Agenda’s Georgina Dent wrote a powerful piece recently, in which she defended the need to recognize the opportunity cost of pulling out of the workforce to care for children. In other words, we need to “calculate” the value of unpaid labour performed by caregivers/homakers (the majority of whom are women).

Dent’s article responds to a controversial piece in which a man in the United States attempted to place a dollar value on the labour of his wife, a ‘stay-at-home-mother’. He concluded that if he paid her for her work, it would cost him US$73,960. In Australia, where the minimum wage is higher than in the United States, I would venture to say that the value of the labour of a stay-a-home parent would be even higher.

Many people thought it improper to try to put a dollar value on the unpaid work of women. For example, one reader said that ‘payment’ for staying at home is the “privilege” of spending quality time with their child. Why should money enter the equation? Isn’t the joy or raising a home enough.

But Dent explains, that it IS really important to think about the economic value of the primary caregiver/homemaker. It’s all about financial security. For a person – usually a woman – to exit, or pull back, from the labour force so that she can support her partner and care for their children – she has to take a risk: if things don’t work out, if that marriage (or partnership) fails, if the primary breadwinner ceases to be able to provide, if it turns out that that the breadwinner is an abusive shit, and she needs to run, then she is in a lot of trouble. Here’s what Dent writes:

Recently we published a story about homelessness and women and how it is often the result of a lifetime accumulating poverty rather than wealth. How? One way is by stepping out of paid work to undertake unpaid work. To care for children or elderly relatives or to run the household and support a working spouse.
Sometimes women do this because it is what they want and there is no shame in that choice. Other times women do this because it’s the only available choice…

This might not matter if the family’s financial position remains unchanged. If a marriage survives, if illness doesn’t arise, if redundancy is avoided and if the main breadwinner wins enough bread to comfortably support two people in retirement, then at the end of a woman’s life her individual wealth won’t matter.

It will, however, matter greatly if any of those factors arise. If the marriage ends or if the breadwinner loses their job, then the woman’s financial security will be precarious. That is the cost of doing more unpaid work than paid work.

(Italics mine)

We all know that caregiving is highly valuable. In fact, it’s invaluable. It’s the foundation of a functional society. At moments, it is incredibly rewarding. But in the workforce, it counts for nothing. And, as Dent says, if things don’t work out – if the marriage isn’t working, or the breadwinner is made redundent, or you suddenly have a huge and unforseen expense – then it’s hard to convince an employer that the skills you’ve honed as a caregiver are of any commercial value.

Putter a dollar value on all that unpaid labour might change the conversation.