Thursday, September 07, 2017

Labor of Love

This last Monday was an American national holiday - Labor Day. For my writing classes this week, I had students write about the overlap between love and work - if it exists for them. It was powerful to experience such a wide-range of histories, hurt, joy, and intersectionality. I wanted to do a wrap-up of shorts to share all the wisdom and direct humanness I encountered where these topics overlap in a prompt.

A few people spoke to the work that is inherent in loving itself - a wonderful twist on the given prompt. Marriage is work, having children is work - not just the laundry and bills, but the work of loving itself - relationship building and repair and sustaining. Not to mention the work of loving or even simply caring for the self, which, for most of us in a capitalist society, is an epic full-time job. When we already work for money, these kinds of unlabeled labors can cripple our ability to function.

Perhaps because the majority of my students are women, lots spoke to the lack of acknowledgment that is inherent in major work going unpaid - cleaning, child care, etc - especially when it is still assumed a woman will do it even if she also works for money full time. One woman spoke to not being acknowledged by administration in her work of over thirty years - this was painful, but also served the benefit of not being middle-managed. And her co-workers did acknowledge her.

In fact, acknowledgement - or lack of it - became a huge part of our group contemplation this week. When women, in particular, are recognized for their skills and renumerated (or at least congratulated) and when, instead, their positive attributes are seen as threats. Many women, especially if they survived trauma as a child, are used to "going it alone" or feeling that is what is expected of them. As one woman put it, "Thrown into the deep end and made to learn to swim myself." This has been no different in work than it has in life - often without the resources it really takes to thrive. The back-stabbing co-worker culture for a lot of women in America causes us to doubt our skills, and try to hide under underperformance - or push out to get ahead. As another woman said, "My competence has nothing to say about your competence or incompetence," though it is often seen as judgment when a woman comes out ahead of others. Either coping strategy carries punishment.

This cartoon, "You Should've Asked," nails the mental load a lot of women carry both at work and at home - always feeling as if (and often the reality reflects) the woman is being asked to remember all the details that make up family life, no matter how big or small that is. Though the cartoon speaks to heterosexual relationships, and I question the gendering in it, it does point to something essential - the deeply invisible layer(s) of work a lot of us are constantly tracking, without pay, without acknowledgement, and often, with a tinge of martyrdom and resentment that benefits no one.

Students spoke to the impossibility of earning enough money doing what they love, of making art being more rewarding as work than what they do for pay. This artist contrast is an old story, and one only alleviated slightly by privilege. If we are able to not have to work full time, and have a loving home life fill our hours, and that is our preference, then maybe work and love can overlap. But for those of us who either need to or wish to work for pay outside of the work of daily life, any overlap between love and work can remain elusive. Consistently trying to stay connected to our core - core values, core identity, core skills - can run amok when the many hydra head of survival kicks in.

What about those of us lucky enough to do what we love for a living? After all, I get to teach writing as a contemplative practice, as well as many other art forms. It is beautiful. And also exhausting. No one gets out of the double-bind of capitalism, not even those higher on the ladder of privilege. Though it is good to remind ourselves that being paid to do what we love, even if it risks killing our love, is a safer and more enjoyable position than being paid to do what we hate. Regardless, as one person noted, the "self-coercion" necessary to turn side hustles or hobbies into income is painful, to debase, devalue, or denigrate what we love by commodifying it. This isn't romantic speak - as soon as capital gets involved, it changes the power and gains of any persons' relationship to work. It's either a "dangerous or useful edge," depending on how we ride it, if we get to choose to ride it at all.

And choice is key. Key. Choice is a result of privilege, and the fruits of privilege - education, money, inherited status, race, class. Most people in this world - male and female or any other gender - don't have a lot of choice around earning. Even if we are in the camp of, as one student said, "People who thought they were doing what they loved only to discover they don't," still other options remain open for only a few. Even when we have options, they can often feel like choosing between a rock and a hard place - do I work or homeschool my child? Do I do what I hate to support my family or do what I love and struggle in poverty? But the fact remains that most people - even though our society at large deems us all to have more choice than we do - can't even make these kinds of choices. Most of us say we choose to keep going, but for a lot of people, that "choosing" is really not a true choice.

One student noted the adage, "Work is love made visible," only to note slaves likely don't feel the same way. But even a slave might have a craft, or a song, something they love to do, and when they whittle or sing, their love is made into a form others can appreciate. Is that still work? Certainly, though slaves earn nothing, they are working. Exploring the edges of earning and value and worth in a consumer capitalist world becomes tricky quickly. That's all the more reason why personal stories are so important.

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