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The Need for Authentic Peer Support

The idea of unpaid public work is an underexplored aspect of many women’s lives. Unpaid work might include: being a trustee on charitable boards, providing pastoral care and signposting people to welfare services, participating in community projects, hosting parties at home, contributing to national day events, attending official functions, representing a service or country at public events, using informal influence to smooth relationships and engaging in networking and advocacy in support of local communities. Conceptualizations of work no longer follow a public paid/private unpaid dichotomy and Taylor developed a matrix of public formal, public informal and private informal work that is either paid or unpaid. I am a senior social scientist married to a man who is a senior military officer. The public work that I do and the health impacts of that unpaid public work is little understood.

Historically, unpaid work was expected of women in many walks of life, privately, in the domestic sphere, and in the public sphere supporting their husband’s career. As women have gained rights of individual recognition and pursued careers, the formal expectations of military, diplomat, politician and clergy spouses have diminished. However, while the formal expectations have declined, there are still informal, unrecognised and unremunerated expectations. Furthermore, there is a dearth of understanding of how the unpaid public work impacts on health and well-being. In order to better understand these issues, I undertook a primary research project under the title “Unpaid Public Work is Not Cost Free: Military Spouses Performing Emotional Labour”.

The project built on the existing limited literature about unpaid public work, including clergy spouses experiences of stress. The research comprised 10 in-depth interviews and 2 group discussions with women married to senior military men. The aim of the study was to explore the meaning and impact of unpaid public work on the health and wellbeing of women married to senior military officers. The study was unique in that military spouses married to senior officers agreed to disclose in-depth narratives about their lives, the unpaid public work they did and the impact of this on their health, as well as suggest possible future interventions. As part of the study, two interviews were also conducted with clergy spouses to explore and compare the lived experiences of spouses undertaking unpaid public work in a different sector.

Clergy spouses have been seen as the unpaid partner of a two-person single career (Murphy-Geiss). As with military spouses, this is changing in line with wider societal changes. Both in terms of the nature of the work but also in the expectations of it. Susan explained:

“But I think with clergy spouses people think you know everything that goes on in the parish . . . They think that you are aware of every meeting that’s under way and every project that’s under way. And, I don’t think they intend it this way, I truly don’t, but I think there’s a little bit of a holdover from a former time where there was the sense it was two for the price of one, because when clergy spouses stayed at home and didn’t work outside the home, that’s really what they did.” (Susan)

Unpaid public work is cross-cutting, or transversal, in that the unpaid work of the spouse supports the paid, formal, recognised work of the clergy. Transversal unpaid public work is undeclared, implied and indirect. However, clergy spouse do have some choices and can use their informal influence to decide the kind of unpaid work to engage with. Susan described how she chose to get involved in unpaid work based on where she could use her skills and informal influence to address local challenges or where there was a gap in volunteers:

“When we were [in the previous parish] . . .  I just looked around and I could see some things that needed to be done . . . In my present parish I worked with a volunteer structure and an annual charity project. It might be a gap in something the parish isn’t doing and needs. Or it might be that there is a sudden gap that needs filling by somebody who is right here.” (Susan)

So as expectations of unpaid public work change, spouses are gaining more choice about what to get involved in:

“I’ll tell people when I arrive: ‘I’m considering a lot of options or opportunities right now and for a little while I’m not going to do anything until I decide what might be right for me.’ ” (Candice)

On one level, the roles expected of clergy spouses appeared to be a result of socialization into the church institution and the interviewees described their role as a partnership with their husband. This partnership went beyond the partnership of a private commitment to each other, the partnership extended into the public sphere and the transversal role of supporting the local community. On another level, spouses recognised their informal influence and used this to bring about change. Susan said that she will only get involved if she feels she can make a positive and long-term impact:

“That I could really do something that would change that place. And I will say that, whatever I’ve got involved with, I wanted to make sure that it was foundational and not transactional.” (Susan)

In addition to having a local community impact, unpaid public work was seen as offering positive opportunities for the spouse. For example, providing opportunities to meet people and have experiences they would otherwise not have, developing new skills and growing in self-confidence:

“And sometimes it’s nice for someone to push me to do things I would not ordinarily have done . . . because I had confidence issues, they saw things in me I didn’t see in myself, pushed me to go do it. Sometimes it’s nice for someone to ask and to push. If people ask me to do things, I won’t see it as too burdensome because sometimes I’ve had good experiences with that.” (Candice)

Undertaking unpaid public work was seen as a service with positive outcomes, but it was also seen as impacting on well-being. The diversity of tasks and the range of personal characteristics needed for unpaid work were at times seen as being overwhelming:

“And it is about service . . . Some of that is also me, by my personality being a caretaker to some degree and a volunteer. Of course, as you get to an adult you learn how to draw boundaries so that you don’t go crazy because that tendency is there, to be that way when you’re a caretaker, when you want to help and you want to volunteer and you want to do things of course you learn that you’ll be drained and have no soul [laughter] if you do it all the time.” (Candice)

The performance of the happy face in public and the performance of adhering to informal, unwritten norms in public was a stressor:

“There have been moments when individuals have been unhappy with [my husband] for whatever reason and . . . that’s when I don’t like being in that public gaze . . . That’s where I feel stress and tension.” (Susan)

Private, domestic, unpaid labour, public unpaid labour and paid labour are changing. Sarah recounted her experience from 20 years ago when her child was born:

“I was doing freelance work [and I had my first trip away after the baby was born]. I was very excited, I got ready for my trip, she was [a few months old], waved goodbye, he’s with her for the [days I’m away] . . . And of course, what happened? I wave bye and [baby gets sick for the days I’m away] Well of course this went on the hot wire around the parish and so all these women showing up and tisk tisking and I know they were thinking ‘how could she leave the baby?’ “ (Susan)

Susan went on to explain how today, as more women are entering full-time employment, there is a recognition of the additional labour of unpaidPreview (opens in a new window) public work by some spouses:

“I’ve had people, mostly women, come up to me and say: ‘you know I appreciate what you’re doing [with your paid work] so you couldn’t have had much of a weekend.’ They’re very sweet about that.  . . . I think as women have gone out and done more they are finally putting together: oh, ok, so ok, this is like a seventh day of work for you. I do think they’re getting that more.” (Susan)

While the recognition of unpaid public work is happening at a local level, formal institutional structures do not necessarily acknowledge the changing unpaid and paid work context and support required for undertaking the diverse roles. As with military spouses, there is little formal training or support for unpaid public work of clergy spouses, and where there is support it is not anonymous:

“Here’s the interesting thing about that. The theory behind that is that the bishop is supposed to be the pastoral support for the clergy community and clergy family. Here’s the problem with that. The bishop is technically also the boss to all the clergy. You think as a spouse I’m going to go talk to the bishop? No! Not going to happen!” (Susan)

Also similar to military spouses, peer support, mentoring and informal networks such as role models, were something that was felt would be beneficial because of the unique working pattern and pastoral care expected of the clergy. Candice explained how she chose her role model based on someone who was “authentically who they were”. And Susan said: “I probably would’ve enjoyed something like peer support.” (Susan)

Unpaid public work had positive and negative impacts on health and wellbeing. The study indicated there are similarities across sectors and countries but that there are also differences related to the wider social contexts. Future research could include men and women who are spouses and partners of all levels of clergy and between different countries as well as include public sector partners such as military, diplomats and politicians. Methods could be expanded to include a mixed approach building on existing quantitative datasets of employment, health and wellbeing. Future interventions could follow a human rights-based approach. First in terms of developing worker rights for unpaid public work and second in terms of improving availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality of services to support spouses and partners undertaking unpaid work. Where spouses and partners do continue to pursue unpaid public work, improved support could be developed thereby giving the work greater value. A common suggestion from participants was for confidential peer support. Further research would be required to evaluate the implementation of such context-specific interventions.

The photo accompanying this post corresponds with how I struggled to articulate how unpaid work fits into my life. My mentor reminded me of the children’s poem. “My hat, it has three corners, Three corners has my hat And had it not three corners, It would not be my hat.” On one corner, I am a curious researcher. On another corner, I am a curious military spouse. On the third corner, these intersect to make me curious about the worlds in which I live. The camera in the photo also represents that I sometimes feel I am a curiosity. Rather than being a curiosity we need to recognise unpaid public work in the context of wider societal changes and provide appropriate support to those willing to undertake such work.

About the Author: Maria Stuttaford holds honorary appointments at Cardiff and Warwick universities, UK and University of Cape Town, SA. She is a social scientist interested in the implementation of the right health, in particular how the right is used by civil society organisations.