Unpaid Family Care - Time to Treat It As Economic Reality

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FOR more than a year, a billboard in the Midwestern city where I grew up has carried an unusual message for men. ''Tell her what happened at the office today,'' a headline urges, followed by the subhead, ''A public service for wives.''

To illustrate the point, a cartoon drawing shows a husband sleeping in an easy chair while his wife shrugs her shoulders in weary resignation, as if he represents her only link to the ''real'' world beyond the kitchen.

As a plea for communication between spouses, the billboard may have its uses. But now that wives are almost as likely to be employed as their husbands, the sign appears to be a throwback to the 1950s, when many more women were at home. Its tone is subtly condescending, implying that home may be where the heart is, but it's definitely not where the action is.

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Those dismissive attitudes extend far beyond a billboard. Women caring for families remain largely invisible. Too often, the classic dinner-party question ''What do you do?'' produces barely stifled yawns when the response is, ''I'm a homemaker.''

Now a group of homemakers in Canada has taken an important first step in getting recognition for those who keep the home fires burning. The Canadian Alliance for Home Managers recently led a successful campaign to get unpaid work counted in the census next spring. Everyone completing the census form - men and women - will be asked how many hours a week they spend on housework and family care. By giving statistical weight to these responsibilities, the group hopes to make them more valued.

Carol Lees, president of the alliance, sees the victory as ''one of the most significant advances on behalf of women in decades. It makes this work visible in the government system.''

Mrs. Lees, a mother of three who has been at home for 18 years, explains that unpaid work is currently excluded from the accounting system the government uses to measure progress. ''If this work is invisible in national accounts, it's also invisible in policies and programs - it doesn't exist,'' she says.

In official documents, Lees notes, the Canadian government defines unpaid workers as ''unoccupied'' and ''unproductive'' - descriptions she calls ''devastating'' to home managers. ''When you devalue that work, you devalue the people who do it, who are primarily women,'' she says.

Yet these women want more than dignity. So essential are family care and housework, Lees says, that they must ultimately bring economic benefits as well. Issues such as pensions, child care, Social Security, and tax reform all bear relevance.

Efforts to quantify and value women's unpaid work and include it in economic statistics such as the gross national product carry ramifications for women and families throughout the world.

In theory, Americans celebrate the idea of home as a refuge, an essential haven for the family. From magazine articles about ''cocooning'' to books exploring the meaning of home, the subject is hot. Even the urbane New Yorker magazine devoted an entire issue this month to the theme of ''home.''

But in practice, the unpaid labor done there still gets ignored in answering two questions: ''What is work?'' and ''Who works?''

Some economists see the proper valuing of that work as central to progress in all areas of women's lives. Undervaluing women at home, they argue, leads to undervaluing them at work as well.

The women's movement and the domestic revolution of the past 30 years will never be complete until those who do all the unpaid and forever unfinished work in a home come to be regarded as every bit as worthy of being respected and counted as those with titles and paychecks.

Who knows? If efforts like those of the Canadian alliance spread, child-rearing might become so legitimate that Midwesterners will someday see a companion billboard for women reading, ''Tell him what you did at home today.''

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