India worships mothers; political leaders are fond of equating the nation with Mother, and politics and popular culture both make a huge deal of ‘respect for mothers’. But in spite of this hyper-visible, in-your-face celebration of motherhood, there seems to be a deliberate obscuring of the labour of mothering and care work that women perform. ‘Put her on a pedestal and forget her’ seems to be the approach of Governments. Worship of mothers and slogans of ‘Bharat Mata’ and praise for mothers’ supposed capacity for ‘sacrifice’ and ‘silent suffering’ help us to reinforce the myth that motherhood is a responsibility that women must bear cheerfully and single-handedly, expecting nothing from the State, from employers, from society.
And yet, if we would bother to listen to the voices of real live women, we would find it difficult to keep celebrating domestic drudgery as happy self-sacrificing motherhood. In the 19th century, a Bengali woman Rashsundari Debi taught herself secretly to read and write; in her autobiography Amar Jiban, she describes her life as a wife, daughter-in-law, and mother in terms of unremitting, life-sapping labour. Historian Tanika Sarkar observes that Rashsundari challenges the popular icon of “happy, self-effacing motherhood,” using the image of kolhu-ka-bael – “the blind-folded bullock moving mindlessly round the oil-press” to describe her life. (Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism, 2001, p 120)
That’s why I’d like to spend Mothers’ Day this year dismantling that myth.
Unpaid Labour of Social Reproduction
Social reproduction is the process through which the labour force is rejuvenated from day to day, and from generation to generation. So, it involves biological reproduction – giving birth to the next generation of labourers; and also the endless everyday labour of cooking, feeding, cleaning, providing water, fuel, fodder, caring for children, the elderly, and the sick, and so on. The individual employer and capitalist, as well as the capitalist State, maintain the myth that all this labour is the responsibility of the individual family unit – and specifically, the cheerful voluntary responsibility of women within every family unit. Women who are better off can employ other women – domestic workers and sanitation workers – to perform much of this labour. But it is taboo to speak of cooking, cleaning, parenting, caring – not to mention tasks such as soothing a crying child, wiping a baby’s nose, changing diapers – as ‘work’ at all, especially when it is unwaged.
In countries across the world, however, women and workers have struggled to demand that employers and capitalists recognise the labour of social reproduction and take responsibility for it. They have done so by waging struggles for maternity leave and entitlements; for crèches; for housing, water, sanitation, and food. The historic struggle for the 8-hour day was itself a struggle for the right to 8 hours each of leisure and rest – as essential for social reproduction.
In workplaces today, we can see how capitalists in collusion with the State to extract as much surplus value as possible from the labourer – not only by pushing wages down but by pushing productivity up. The latter is done, in part, by denying workers the time to sit for a few minutes, to use the toilet, have a cup of tea or a meal, exchange a friendly word with a colleague, change a sanitary pad, breastfeed a baby or attend to a child. At the same time, the State’s own ‘welfare’ provisions (which should be called ‘social wages’ rather than ‘welfare’, since they enable social reproduction) are drastically being shrunk and slashed.