Families have always done work at home.
By “work” I mean productive and creative activity, some of it paid, that generates a variety of “goods” — physical, social, educational and nutritional — for the benefit of individual members, families themselves, their neighborhoods, or the markets served through their members’ employment.
In our case, when I was a kid, Mom didn’t have a paid job, but she labored throughout the day, cleaning, cooking, teaching, counseling, taking care of six kids through illness and health, handling disputes, and managing everything else that went on from 7 a.m. until Dad came back in the evening.
Dad had a full-time job at RR Donnelly’s on Cermak Road, just west of the lake, but when he wasn’t sitting at his photo re-toucher’s desk in the plant, he’d be doing the work of home as well; building things, like an ornate wood and stone-tile cover for the long radiator in the parlor, repairing broken furniture, unplugging stuck drains, drawing funny caricatures of us, painting rooms as bedroom assignments changed over the years, and as the basement’s functions evolved. In our first home in Brookfield, he and other men from the neighborhood had built our garage.
Our Berwyn home was an engaging place of study, prayer and play. It was where we ate all our meals, usually together, even coming home for lunch from elementary school, a half-block away. The yard was for cavorting and letting our dog run. The alley provided an extension of home: Dad and I would play catch back there. In it, up and down the block, my sisters and I would run with other kids, competing in impromptu games of baseball, football, tag and hide-and-go-seek.
Years later, when we raised our own kids in Oak Park, Maureen and I went to offices in the city but also had the flexibility to do some of our professional work from home. That kept at least one of us around enough, with part-time, in-home child care also present, to do some of what Mom and Dad used to do. And the kids still walked to their schools, Longfellow, Beye, Julian and OPRF, keeping them either close by or fully present, frequently with friends.
We also did some things Mom and Dad didn’t do, such as grow some of our own food in beds and on poles in the backyard. The garden beds were enriched with our own compost. More of the work occurred online than had been the case in the 1960s. But in this evolved form, our Oak Park home was still, like my abode as a kid, a place of study, reflection, play and hard work. Being productive in our house bonded us with it, infused meaning into our relationship with it, helping to make it more of a home.
COVID has brought about a sea-change in the relationship between work and residence. Now, as many return to the out-of-home workplace, there’s plenty of questioning about the enduring nature of that shift. Will the work-at-home bubble, inflated by the pandemic, pop as the world unmasks? What will have been the effect of the recent, furious flow of paid work into the domicile? How has child care changed? What insights have we gained about the benefits — monetary, social and environmental — of avoiding long commutes to places of employment? Which of those commutes are truly necessary?
And what kinds of productive homes will we build as the waters of the crisis recede?
Rich Kordesh is a resident of Oak Park.