Suzanna, a single mother, discusses with me the effects of poverty on her and other women like her who are the sole providers of care and income in their families
Suzanna is a single mother with two children. She is a lesbian and has been a sex worker. Suzanna is currently on benefits. Suzanna is a single mother with two children. She is on benefits, she is a lesbian, and she has been a sex worker. I met her at the Trade Union march on October 20th, which was called ‘A Future that Works’. Suzanna carried a small, handmade sign that said ‘me and my kids often skip meals & I’m sick of it,’ and shouted ‘house of thieves!’ at Parliament. As a single mother on benefits, Suzanna works too hard, endlessly, invisibly, and in poverty. I spoke to her at her flat in London, which is full of books and candles; her two daughters chatted in the background.
For Suzanna, poverty is exhausting more than anything. It’s tiring to have to constantly worry and strategise just to be able to afford the basics. And it’s simultaneously exhausting to be a single mother, the sole carer, where caring becomes a relentless cycle: “budgeting for the food, buying the food, bringing the food home, preparing the food, all only to clean it up again…” Suzanna often skips meals because she is so tired, and because at the back of her mind she is thinking about how the money saved will help to buy a better meal for her children. And there’s the stress of constantly going without. Suzanna and her children don’t have a car, television or internet, and “really terrible furniture, or next to no furniture”. She doesn’t have a bed, instead she sleeps on a mattress. She rarely uses public transport, walking long distances across London.
In poverty, exhaustion and stress combine to stifle you, making you forget dreams and ideas which you don’t have time for and which seem far away. It erodes your creativity and your sense of self esteem and self worth. “If you don’t eat good meals, if you don’t see beautiful things, if you don’t get out into nature, if you don’t give your legs a rest and go on the train, then you don’t function as well,” says Suzanna. And then there’s the effort of trying to justify or ignore poverty so she doesn’t constantly feel shocked and angry. “There are things I don’t do so that I can feel I am well off. I’ll tell myself I have clean water, free healthcare at the moment, just, and a roof over my head… why do I want any more? I’m sick of doing that.”
In times of poverty it is mothers who ensure people’s survival. In 1972 Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa outlined how women’s work in the home is a fundamental part of the economy. Women’s unwaged, invisible caring work – giving birth, raising, feeding, clothing, comforting, and cleaning – creates workers for production. The adults are sent to jobs and the children to school, where they are taught to work while mothers’ work protects the family from poverty. Suzanna absorbs poverty, through her constant labour, skipped meals and repressed anger; the poverty goes through her, so that by the time it reaches her children it is easier to bear.
Today the free market is becoming more dominant and women’s work is increasing. To allow corporations to act as freely as possible, the social safety net – free healthcare and education, benefits, state pensions – is eroded, so people have no option but to take work which is very poorly paid or has long hours. This means two things: increasing poverty, and more intense production in jobs to give maximum profits to a small group of people.
Both of these things mean an increase in women’s’ work. Women must care for their families who are facing poverty, and do more caring work to keep up with the growing intensity of production – producing more and better workers for free. This also means that womanhood is becoming more regimented and controlled. “Boden catalogues and Cath Kidston and cupcakes and The Great British Bake Off and things that seem very old fashioned, and Keep Calm and Carry On and bunting and Nigella,” says Suzanna, talking about the return to rigid gender roles. Society has returned to idealising the woman in the kitchen , always smiling, always calm, mysteriously keeping the house sparkling clean and delivering meals. And there’s a further role the mother is meant to fulfil: that of making society seem legitimate, making us accept our own poverty. We want to forget poverty and financial uncertainty, so we want this mother figure whose work and stress we don’t even see. As long as the family is together and coping, society seems fine instead of cruel and destructive.
But how does it really feel to be a stay at home mum? “It’s deadly boring,” says Suzanna, “the relentless demands, really hard physical demands from children. The slog of carrying them and helping them get to sleep, and buying them things, and taking them to places, and helping them when they’re distressed and they’re crying, or they’re ill. Invisible work, totally cut off from society. I think it’s terrible… the idea that the mother has greater reserves of patience, it’s nonsense!”
The fantasy of the liberated professional woman, who has a high powered job, healthy children and a happy family is only more of the same. Suzanna has heard “women who are architects or lawyers, saying they were doing these jobs to please their parents, that they didn’t like raising their children, and they’re ashamed that they don’t enjoy it.” The increase in the number of women in work has only increased women’s workload, often making women both the primary carer and primary earner in the family.
Suzanna knows her children hate seeing how impossible her workload is, that they are tired of the awareness of poverty and the politics of it. “I wish that their lives were lighter and more frivolous or just more fun, that’s all.” But she knows they’re proud of her, “They think I’m really super strong and super amazing and that there’s no one like me.” She was married for seven years and felt “completely invisible and completely silenced.” Her husband was a musician who was abroad on tour a lot, leaving her to look after the children. “I was entirely trapped in looking after them, I was very isolated. I had no option to go anywhere or do anything.” Suzanna says part of the reason she wanted kids was so that she could fulfil society’s expectation that she would be a carer, strong and loved. “I didn’t ask myself difficult questions,” says Suzanna, “like did I want to be loved, did I want to be looked up to… did I want to immortalise myself, to be adored? I think people have an enormous shock when they realise that motherhood won’t satisfy those urges.”
Women’s economic role is just as strictly enforced outside the home. Suzanna has done a variety of sex work: stripping, phone work, webcam work, where she was employed for her body or voice. She was “sometimes bored, sometimes insulted, it can be crass.” But she also saw “aspects of human nature that I was continually marvelling at…For me it was like counselling work. Often I was dealing with people who had really powerful and complicated issues, people who were really grappling with ideas about what their gender was, who time after time said they wouldn’t take that to a counsellor because of their shame.” Suzanna says that she sees caring work and sex work as closely connected. They’re both low status jobs, they’re both stigmatised, and there’s an assumption that both will be done by women. In both cases the workers – mothers and sex workers – are silenced and invisible, excluded from politics and the media. “They’re both servicing the needs of men and children… and they’re not valued,” she says.
But sex work is not the only area where women are employed for their bodies. Suzanna doesn’t feel like she has ever been employed for her skills or brains. “It was about what I look like and the fact that I’m white and I have a certain voice, that I’m well spoken. Everybody knows the code at work – that you’re actually being assessed for your looks and your class, and your gender.” She remembers being part of a government back to work scheme where a recruitment consultant told her to apply in person for a job at a graphic design company. He said “You will get the job because it’s an all male company and you look good.” She took action against him, she says, for all the 19 and 20 year olds who just put up with that sort of thing, “At least the sex industry is honest. You don’t feel duped.”
The welfare state was society’s declaration that caring work should be distributed equitably between men and women. However, women are still supposed to step in and do the caring when public services are taken away. Through skipping meals and walking across London, Suzanna is trying to compensate for the difficulties left in her life by a society which does not share the burden of caring. A recent estimate put the value of a stay at home mum’s work at £70,700 per year. She’s certainly not getting that money – for that kind of salary the family could be eating gourmet meals and sleeping on feather beds. Someone obviously benefits from her work but it’s not her. The benefits go to bosses and bankers and shareholders, who get profits, second homes, holidays, and private education for their children. The welfare state, far from being a way of giving people free stuff, was meant to be a way of compensating people for the enormous amount of work they were already doing by redistributing the rewards of society’s work. Today politicians and media commentators are trying to make this work invisible, so people no longer see why we need a welfare state.
Among this silencing it’s hard to understand and define the political implications of your own life, let alone speak out about it. But Suzanna is one of a multitude of people who are struggling and resisting and building a political theory out of their lives, people who are completely invisible in politics and the media. The Benefits Uprating Bill, which limited increases in benefits to 1% for the next 3 years; the Welfare Reform Act, which cut child benefit, housing benefit, disability and carers’ benefits – both are attempts to silence and dominate her, to drive her further into poverty, to increase the amount of unwaged work she must do. The Left is complicit in this attack. This year Labour has already announced plans to force people on benefits into work; the Unions, as Selma James said in 1972, ‘are desperately trying to shove “We want jobs” placards into workers’ hands’. As if we aren’t working already! Suzanna is lightyears ahead of the organisations which claim to speak for her, in her ideas and in her everyday resistance. The future of politics isn’t in the hands of Labour or the traditional Left; it will be determined by grassroots people like Suzanna, who are fighting back and defining themselves more and more every day. It’s not easy to take a stand when most of society seems disgusted by you: “you’re ticking too many of the boxes of the things people find unpalatable,” says Suzanna. Lesbian, sex worker, single mum, on benefits, outspoken. She gets tired. But she says “I don’t believe in keeping a lid on all the anger, I think the anger should be expressed or go somewhere. There’s subjects that are so important to me that I think I could just go on about them forever. It’s like setting off a little firework and it won’t stop.”
Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community - available from Crossroads Books (scroll down to the bottom – it’s the last book)
Selma James, Women, the Unions and Work - from her new anthology Sex, Race and Class, available from Amazon.