There was a time when somebody might have observed that a stay-at-home mom didn't work. These are more enlightened times, but I have no doubt that some still feel that way. As a stay-at-home dad, caring for a special needs son, I have first-hand experience regarding this concept. You do a lot of work, but you don't get paid for it. It's the job that's not really a job.
That's not what this story is about.
I mention moms, and dads, because that's one place where work isn't valued, at least not financially. Most people will, sometimes grudgingly, accept that the work does, however, have a value you need to measure differently.
You're still contributing. You're still working.
To tell the real story I'm dancing around, let me just add that working doesn't necessarily equate with directly contributing to society.
One morning, after dropping my son off at school, I saw an old woman walking down one of the neighbouring streets. I was about three minutes' drive from my house at the time and driving slowly through the residential streets. As we all should.
The old woman was pushing a beat-up metal cart. It was one of those square wire boxes with a couple of wheels and a handle so you could tilt it and carry your contents more easily than carrying them in your arms. She had lined the inside of the cart with a plastic garbage bag. She walked a bit hunched over, with short shuffling steps, and she had an old brown covering of some sort draped over her shoulders. Her clothes were dull rags.
Homeless, I thought. I honestly don't know if she was, but that was my first thought.
Thursday is garbage day in my neighbourhood. When I first spotted her, a short distance ahead of me, she was rummaging through someone else's rubbish. She had found something of value (there's that word again, value) and was depositing it in her bag-lined cart which was already getting full. I could see things peeking out of the top. She gave the garbage pile a final examination, then wandered on to the next house, and the next garbage pile. I looked at her as I drove slowly past. She did not look at me.
I live in Waterloo, one of the best cities you could want to live in. People do pretty well in Waterloo, so when you see somebody like this, you tend to notice. I thought about her a lot, that morning, but in an odd way. What I thought was that this was a hard-working woman. She got up early, and made her way down the streets, collecting things she saw as valuable to either resell or use, as it made sense. This was her job. Though some might observe otherwise, she certainly wasn't lazy. Heck, she was up walking the streets, making her living, earlier than I wanted to be exerting myself to that degree.
You can't say she doesn't have a job . . . that she isn't trying to make a living. You might ask what she contributes, but as I suggested earlier, it isn't difficult to argue that having a job doesn't immediately qualify as contributing to society.
So, what's the value in her work? What does she contribute?
A final thought. When I told my wife, Sally, this story. She asked me how old this old woman was. I said, "I don't know. Late fifties. Maybe early sixties."
In short, right around my age.
Her position in life, her dress, and the way she walked, had, it seemed, aged her considerably in my eyes, even though, on reflection, she probably wasn't that much older than me.