A two-page story entitled `Single mother works three jobs to maintain her five children’ published in the Sunday Stabroek of September 30, 2012 celebrates 39-year-old Vanessa Simon. She thoroughly deserves celebration. But she deserves something more, that we take the story of how she lives her life seriously enough to challenge the national and global economic priorities that force her and too many other mothers to work multiple jobs to ensure the survival of their children.
The three jobs Vanessa Simon does are security guard work, work as a sweeper/cleaner and drainage work, some of which is done on Sunday, when, she says, the drainage workers try to “push the work as far as possible” to reduce the number of hours they must spend doing it on weekdays. But in fact, she does more than these jobs to earn money. She also makes and sells pointer brooms, tends and sells plants, and grinds and bottles produce with other women in a group called Women for Change.
And then there is the work neither she nor the economists measure and value as work: mothering. The fact that she so clearly loves her children and wants to do all she can to give them better lives does not mean that what she does for them is not work. It is, and in her case (and the case of many other Guyanese women) it is performed without electricity and therefore is harder and takes longer.
Here, roughly, is an outline of the workday Vanessa Simon narrates, Monday to Friday, going from 7 am one day to 7 am the next (The length of time it takes to travel to and from jobs is in each case a low estimate).
7am-7.15am: ride home 4 miles from security guard work
7.15am -7.55am: straighten up house, help children finish off homework
7.55am-8am: travel to job as sweeper/cleaner
8am – 11.30am: do sweeper/cleaner work
11.30am-11.35am: travel home from job
11.35am-1.25pm: cook meal for children to eat after school and while pot on fire, wash and/or tend plants and/or make pointer brooms and/or look after fence (which she built)
1.25pm–1.30pm: travel back to sweeper/cleaner job
1.30pm-3pm or 3.30 pm (exact time not stated): continue sweeper/cleaner job
3pm or 3.30pm-3.05pm or 3.35pm: travel back home from sweeper/cleaner job
3.05pm or 3.35pm – 10.45pm:
-some afternoons, do 2 hours drainage work;
-some afternoons, spend unspecified amount of time grinding and bottling produce;
-every afternoon, help children with homework, especially the one doing Common Entrance;
-every night before going to security guard work, prepare children’s breakfast and school snacks for next day
10.45pm -11pm: ride 4 miles to security guard work
Taken all together, this workday adds up to at least 20 hours, although there is no mention of a range of unwaged caregiving tasks that this mother (like others) clearly has to perform, including budgeting, price monitoring and shopping, supervising, settling conflicts, checking that the children have done the tasks they’re assigned to do, that they’ve attended the lessons she sends them to in part so they will be “meaningfully occupied” while she earns money ($10,000 of which goes to pay for the lessons), that they’ve gone straight to school, and all the other tasks of raising five boys aged 9-13 to not become statistics of “failure”. Put those in and the workday is even longer, and how that works is that many of the tasks are carried out at the same time with all the extra stress this involves.
In counting her workload we should also add the Home Economics, Maths and English classes she takes in the hope that they will lead to better-paid jobs.
Vanessa Simon is a single mother who is African-Guyanese. The racist response to her story will focus on the husband who has left her and does not support his children, as though this is unique to African-Guyanese families (little attention will be paid to the fact that he was abusive). The story can teach such people nothing. For the rest of us, hopefully it will make us ask how many mothers are working as she does. Vanessa Simon herself is reported as saying that “she does nothing differently from the many women around her, who work hard to help maintain their families”. Some of those will also be single mothers, whose numbers are rising everywhere as people – many of whom are mothers and fathers migrating alone – move more and more from place to place inside countries and across countries in search of work and more pay. In Guyana we can literally see the flow between coast and interior, between different parts of Guyana and neighbouring Venezuela, Brazil, Suriname and Caribbean islands and further North. Others will be mothers who have partners and husbands, but whose households are also coping or unable to cope with poverty and overwork. That’s the problem: national and global economic priorities which impose on poor families a choice between being superhuman or being beaten down by inhuman conditions.
I’m sure that like me, others who read the article about Vanessa Simon would like the government to ensure that she (and every other Guyanese woman and man who is squatting) gets land free or cheap and that she (and everyone else who needs it ) gets electricity at a price she can afford. That’s as it should be. But it is not enough. One of Guyana’s extraordinary women, she and her sons are coping. But however strong she is, however much she smiles, she has a right to much better, beginning with a living income for performing no more than the amount of work that leaves time for the leisure and rest and sleep and other joys that those with more social and economic power take for granted. Women who are poor do the most work for the least money because it is they who provide unwaged caregiving and domestic work in their own homes and low-waged caregiving and domestic work outside. That is why the solution to their poverty cannot be more work. It has to be more money for the work they are already doing, which is another way of saying more money so they can work less.