Saturday 22 June 2024

Calculating the worth of a housewife

This column first appeared on Malta Today

The shocking story of a woman who was left with a piece of gauze in her abdomen following a hernia operation, which caused her endless physical pain and emotional distress when her complaints were dismissed, was bad enough in itself.

The negligence was appalling not only by whoever left the gauze in, but the doctors and consultants who saw her afterwards and did not find anything wrong. According to the Court report,  she was re-admitted to the hospital two weeks after the operation because the wound had not yet closed and she was in pain. During her time at Mater Dei she contracted the MRSA virus which further affected her health, and her wound still failed to heal. She resorted to a number of doctors and specialists who even told her that she was imagining the pain and referred her to a pain clinic. During another hospital intervention, doctors drained liquid that was being retained inside her body and nurses regularly visited her, even at home, to change the dressings. The woman finally discovered what was wrong herself when she saw a piece of gauze sticking out of her abdomen while taking a shower. 

As it could not be ascertained when and by whom the gauze was left in and because so many heath care professionals failed to identify the cause of her pain, the woman could not put the blame on any specific doctor so she sued the Health Services Department for being collectively responsible.  

What we have not been told is whether anything has been done by the hospital to prevent a repetition of such mistakes by the medical profession. In fact, a similar case of gauze being left inside a patient is still pending since 2021 in front of the Medical Council, which has not yet concluded its inquiry and there is the real fear that it will be time-barred. This is all very worrying for patients who are in such a vulnerable state following their operations, who feel they may not have any recourse in cases involving  these types of human errors. 

This aspect of the case is, as I said, bad enough as it is.  But it does not get any better for this poor woman who, after winning her Court case (after ten years had elapsed, please note), she was awarded the paltry sum of €27,818.  The Judge calculated this sum on the premise that as a 53-year-old housewife, “there was no loss of employment”, so he pegged her  damages to the minimum wage.  First of all, I believe that damages for cases like this should extend beyond potential loss of income and should take into consideration how horrible it is to be in pain for so long because of medical malpractice and the impact that this has on one’s psyche. However, what really bothered me, and a lot of other women, is how one can arbitrarily decide that the worth of a housewife is that of someone who earns minimum wage.   

Anyone who has been a housewife (or a stay-at-home mother, or domestic manager, or any other description one prefers to use) can vouch for the fact that this is hardly the same as a 9 to 5 job.  Dolly Parton may have sung about the downside of working in a environment “where they never give you credit”, but ask any woman who has been inside her four walls days in, day out, running a household and caring for all her children’s needs and she will tell you: “credit? Let me tell you what kind of credit I get!”  

Despite decades of feminism, the fact remains that housework is still a never-ending chain of very thankless tasks which are almost always the woman’s domain. Frankly, even if a woman is at the peak of her high-flying career, unless she has a full-time nanny and housekeeper (or a supportive husband who does his share of the chores and child care duties) when she turns the key in the lock of her home, she metaphorically dons her apron, pushes up her sleeves and reverts to being a housewife. The bottom line is that if no one has done anything in the house all day – then someone’s gotta’ do it. That someone is, in the majority of cases, the woman. That’s just the way it is, especially where children are concerned.  Speak to any working mother and she will tell you that she is the one who will be expected to take sick leave when her children are sick, and the one whom the school calls or emails with a list of requests and activities, or when they need to speak to a parent. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I realise some women are very happy and fulfilled in the full-time housewife role, and would not have it any other way; in fact these women in my view are the luckiest because they have no inner conflicts or the nagging guilt that they are not doing enough at work or at home, with the perpetual feeling that they are letting someone down.  But this is also precisely why I found the decision to use the minimum wage as a measure of a housewife’s monetary “value” quite insulting.   To understand why, I would just like any men with children reading this to close their eyes and imagine themselves as single parents.  They would need a regular maid to keep their place clean, someone to do their laundry and iron their clothes and someone to do the shopping and cook.   Contrary to what some people may think, these are three very distinct jobs, so finding someone willing to do all three is not easy and would require them to be quite well paid – certainly above the minimum wage.  That does not even begin to cover the child care, the school run, homework time and the extra-curricular activities.  I will hasten to add that I know that there are men out there who already take over these duties where the children are concerned, but I also know that when a woman does not work outside the home, it is automatically assumed that she should be the one to deal with all these responsibilities, simply because she has the time available. 

I think the latter point is at the crux of this argument. How often have we heard the scoffing remark about housewives – huh! What do these women find to do all day?  When in reality, many of them organise their whole day at just being available for whatever is needed by the family and always make sure that everything is ready for when they all return home.  And I am not only referring to  women with young children either – mothers with teenagers shoulder a whole new set of responsibilities.  It doesn’t even stop when they grow up and leave home because (for those women who have always been housewives) it is often taken for granted that once the babies come, it is Granny who will be the de facto babysitter (so that the new mother can go back to work).

If you ask me, the role of a housewife is priceless because (a) not everyone is willing to do it and (b) it is invariably under-appreciated. Many men who are able to accept top positions, attending meeting after meeting late into the night can only do so precisely because there is a woman back home who is holding down the fort.  And yes I know that working mothers have to pull double duty once they get home and put on their housewife persona, but at least they get a pay cheque every month which is a tangible reminder of their worth – and that is definitely much more than any housewife gets.