By Naomi Bromberg Bar-Yam, PhD
In 2022 British visual artist Sarah Maple exhibited her installation “Labour of Love” in Rotterdam, Holland. Sarah’s description: “‘Labour of Love’ is a visual depiction of the 650 times our baby was fed over three months. There are 650 images of myself and my baby, each representing a feed, each with a hand finished element covering my face. The aim is to highlight the sheer volume of work that is expected of mothers and to challenge people to rethink the value of the time spent. . . . Raising a child is seen as a female task, not a real job. Thus unpaid and undervalued. . . .” (Italics mine)
In our society, we gauge value and productivity in monetary terms, most evident in various labor, employment, and production statistics measuring income, employment rates, and the monetary worth of goods and services.
Unpaid work is unvalued
In general, caregiving work, including child, elder, and disabled care, is not regarded as productive labor compared with the goods and services that contribute directly to economic growth. So, most people in these fields are indeed undervalued, manifest in low pay. And, from the economic lens, unpaid work is unvalued: it does not appear on the ledger at all.
We know better. ֵEconomics is a powerful tool, inherently, limited and incomplete. There is much of value that cannot be measured in dollars, and much work critical to a functioning society that is not paid. Breastfeeding and caring for children, parents, and others are often carried out within families and are not paid. Economics is also the lens through which the media report and policies are formulated.
As advocates for valuable yet unpaid or poorly paid work, we face two seemingly contradictory challenges. On one hand, we cannot disregard the language of economics. To advocate effectively for change, it is crucial that we incorporate economic arguments into policy discussions. However, simultaneously, we must both address and transcend it.
Economic value of breastfeeding
Numerous research studies tell us the economic value of breastfeeding and the long-term costs of commercial formula for families, employers, health care, governments. and society. Scholars and advocates have repeatedly called for breast milk to be counted in national GDP and food production statistics. To date, only Norway does so.
How do we convey to policy makers, employers, legislators the non-economically measured, but central value of breastfeeding and other forms of caring such that it becomes an integral part of their decision-making toolkit? As caregivers and their advocates gain a seat at the policy table, it is incumbent on us both to address the decision-makers’ concerns on their (economic) terms AND to add other kinds of value to the conversation. This requires thought, planning. and collaboration.
I hope that, in a few years, Sarah Maple will create an updated “Labour of Love” installation in which she no longer feels the need to cover her face in the images. While breastfeeding will remain unpaid, the work will not be undervalued. Sarah and others will feel seen and honored for this life sustaining work.
Naomi Bromberg Bar-Yam, PhD, has been working in maternal and child health for 35 years as an educator, researcher, advocate, and writer. She is past president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) and is the founding director emerita of Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, which provides safe donor milk to hospitals and families throughout the northeastern US. Learn more about her on her LactSpeak profile.