Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Labour Day - yesterday, the first of May- commemorates the advocacy achievements of trade unionists. It stands as a reminder of an international, daily, right to eight hours of work, recreation and rest. It's a celebration for the right to rest and a celebration that is exclusionary to women who work beyond formality into the night to nourish families.
The world of work is a complex engendered sphere with a history and a damning legacy. Despite omnipresent wage gaps, sexual harassment, maternity leave and a fight for minimum wages, women remain minimised figures in the symbolic understanding of labour and gendered transformation sometimes misses the mark. While advocacy organisations seem to be increasingly battling the burden of reproductive work on women, many also promote female entrepreneurship - an income generating notion but also one that does little to strengthen labour rights as it places an unregulated burden on women to work without rest.
This image of overworked and underappreciated women is one I’ve grown up believing to be an inevitable fate. As a doula, supporting labouring women, this engrained narrative presents itself in the bustle of government MOUs. I’ve heard women give themselves a time limit on birth so they can get back to their other children and work. And I’ve seen mothers afraid to relax as contractions came and their minds continued to work for a capitalist, a patriarch and an unjust sociological circumstance. I’ve confronted symbolic and institutional violence against mothers who are racially profiled to cope with pain and induced as their biological labour does not fit the timeframe of healthcare resources. I’ve watched as mothers tirelessly used their bodies to give life, sustain it and protect it. Guilt and restlessness seem to become a working-age woman’s conundrum.
On Monday I assisted a labouring mother who also wanted her baby out by 4 pm. As her contractions became stronger she looked at me as if I could slow time or hurry her baby. And as 4 pm became a reality, she seemed to internally tell time to fuck off and between surges, she began to relax, put her weight on me and enjoy the hot water bottle held at her back. With the little bit of ease, she progressed into motherhood - she dilated and laboured with a grace I’m still in awe of. Her release, although done somewhat bitterly, made me realise the learnt stamina of intersectional women and the work it takes to practise self-care.
And so this May, my wish is that women (mothers or not) work as they need and want. I hope that institutions allow women to labour at work and at birth with dignity noting identity markers and nuance. I hope that women find time for self-care that spans beyond allotted public holidays and that the water-crisis improves because a bath, hot water bottle and some tea could go a long way
Photograph: Laura Viruly, 2017