You can't outsource motherhood, but you can share the load


By the time this column appears, I hope to be eating breakfast in bed and enjoying cuddles and homemade Mother's Day cards.

I don't expect a gift, but if I get one I'm sure it'll be lovely and not at all like some of the frightful Mother's Day gifts I've seen advertised.

Who would buy their mother a novelty corkscrew in the shape of a man with the actual spiral as the, ahem, well you get the idea ...?

And don't get me started on the glossy catalogues showing child models interacting with a 21-year-old waif in pristine white clothing who is meant to represent their mother.

Mother's Day should be a day to celebrate actual mothers, and thank them for the labour of love that is bringing up children.

It's also a time to reflect on the unpaid contribution of mothers and grandmothers to families and communities.

Unpaid child minding performed by both men and women is worth $409.53 billion in 2016 dollars if you had to replace it on the market, while unpaid domestic work is worth $132.7 billion. That's according to PricewaterhouseCoopers'Understanding the Unpaid Economy report, analysing Bureau of Statistics figures.

Women do more than three-quarters of unpaid child minding work, more than two-thirds of unpaid domestic work, and also do the majority of volunteer work and caring for adults, the report says.

I mention that it's unpaid to differentiate it from the paid version provided by nannies, babysitters, childcare workers and teachers. I am not arguing that parents and grandparents of either gender should be literally paid to spend time with the junior members of their family.

But we do need to recognise that it's valuable.

It's one of the quirks of economics that looking after your own children or cleaning your own house does not contribute to gross domestic product (GDP) but paying someone else to mind your children or clean your house does.

Overall, it's been estimated that unpaid care work - including child minding, domestic work, caring for adults, and volunteering - is worth more than half our GDP. It's not included in the GDP but that doesn't make the underlying economic value lesser.

Our GDP has gone up as more women have entered the workforce, both from our direct participation in paid work, but also because of outsourcing more household tasks.

It's far more common to use after-school care facilities, or employ a house cleaner than it used to be. Unpaid work that was traditionally performed by men such as handyman work, maintaining the car or mowing the lawn is also more likely to be outsourced.

There are whole businesses built on this trend, such as Airtasker, TaskRabbit or Freelancer. There's also a plenty of exploitation, so I'm happy that Airtasker and Unions NSW recently reached an agreement on fair pay.

Meanwhile, some tasks that used to be the basis of paid jobs have gone the other way - we're now expected to pump our own petrol for free, and increasingly to scan and bag our groceries.

Economists classify unpaid care work as a type of productive work called "household production". This means the products and services are consumed by a family member or the community rather than sold on the market.

But unlike leisure, household production can be outsourced. In other words, you can pay someone such as a cleaner or nanny to do the work, whereas you can't pay someone else to relax on your behalf or do your hobbies.

I have no qualms about outsourcing when I can afford it. We have a weekly cleaner.

I've also hired a friend on maternity leave as my virtual executive assistant. I email her tasks when I think of it; anything from researching which computer keyboard to buy for my home office to ordering and wrapping suitable gifts for six- and seven-year-olds so I have a ready supply for birthday parties.

There are some things about being a parent that you can't outsource, and nor would I want to. You can't pay someone else to love your children and be a constant and supportive presence in their lives.

But it doesn't require a 24/7 physical presence. I happily use outsourcing to supplement our parenting efforts and ensure that my husband and I can maintain both our careers and sanity. So we pay a young woman to come to my house at 8am twice a week and walk our kids to school, we use after-school care a few afternoons a week, and we gratefully accept the help freely offered by grandparents and other relatives.

Calculating the cost and benefit of paid outsourcing is a matter of individual household economics. How much does it cost versus how much you and your partner are paid?

But if you're considering dropping hours of paid work in order to do unpaid work, also think about the long-term cost of reduced career progression, earning potential and lost superannuation contributions.

If both parents in a couple are working, your leisure time is equally valuable, regardless of any earning disparity.

I can only hope that things have changed since a 2008 article in the Journal of Marriage and Family, when researchers found that when a mixed-gender couple moves in together, the woman's time spent on housework goes up, while the man's goes down, regardless of employment status.

A 2017 report from the UNSW Business School suggests it varies by education levels. The analysis, also looking at heterosexual couples, found when a woman is promoted at work, she'll do a little less housework and her partner a little more.

But for less-educated couples, if a man loses his job, it results in his female partner doing more housework. That's counter-intuitive because the man has more time on his hands, and less economic power, but the explanation is that less educated women perform more of a conventional gender role to compensate for their partner's male breadwinner status being under threat.

Apart from doing it all yourself, there's another alternative to outsourcing, and that's about community and shared social obligations.

I'm told it used to be common for working Australians to work on the home with the equivalent of a "barn raising" - your mates help you pour a slab of concrete, and in return you lay on some beer and promise to help them when it's their turn. Great for community.

There are equivalents. In my 20s, my friends and I helped each other move house. Now I'm a parent, there are school working bees and fundraising events.

Next on my agenda is to develop a trusted networks of parents to take turns babysitting each other's children especially in school holidays - the idea being to solve child minding and play dates in one go.

But first, back to my snuggles and scrambled eggs.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the editor of Money and a regular columnist. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

This story You can't outsource motherhood, but you can share the load first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.