In his recent book “On Writing” Stephen King reflects that, among many things, he often ends up writing about work. “People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do” he says.
I’ve certainly found much to reflect on when it comes to work, but I’m rather glad to be at the end of this little bit of work. It has taken up much emotional and mental space and I am ready to move on with renewed vigour and, well, get back to work.
Tragic events of global and local significance keep rolling in. Now, more than ever, I am filled with gratitude, appreciation, and contentment. I am waking up every day with keen awareness of abundance. I’m counting my blessings.
And as I contemplate the richness of all that I have, the challenges of young parenthood and employment seem far less of a concern now than they did eighteen months ago when I began this series. And that is a good thing. Because some things in this life are much more important than others and this recent perspective shift, this fresh reminder of the most important things in life, has helped me settle a few things in my own mind, namely by giving peace. Peace, because, while we can seemingly control a few things in life, the harsh reality is that much of life is beyond our control. We can only control how we respond.
In the muddle that was 2019, while approaching the end of my third stint of maternity leave I had a crisis of “occupation”, a feeling of being underemployed, of having time and energy to spare but nothing meaningful to expend it on. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt something like it – a combination of numb monotony and quiet despair, like you might wake up in the morning and find you have become a shadow of yourself, physically present, but in reality, actually gone. It’s not a nice feeling, to say the least.
Rather than run, or hide (both of which were tempting options) God saw fit that I should simply sit with such feelings, and wrestle with them. And so it transpires that I’ve been wrestling with these feelings for eighteen months (and chatting to a psychologist and friend or two). I’ve poked at them, turned them over, looked at them from every possible angle, all in the hope of finding out – why do I feel this way? What is it about lack of employment that gets me so down? What even is work? Why do I want more of it? And why has it been so hard to feel and be “fully” employed as a young mother?
As I slowly found answers to these questions, my cumbersome and uncomfortable angst gradually diminished and things became clearer until finally, it seemed to me that it is still so hard to be “fully” and gainfully employed as a young mother in the modern western world because there is an inherent glitch in the system. The glitch being that I think we, in the wealthy west, might have lost sight of what work really is. I might have been thinking about work, especially work across the lifespan, in the wrong way.
It is obvious that humankind works for survival, but we work for other reasons too. We have a deep need to engage in work that is meaningful, productive, and satisfying. Even when we are very young we have an innate need to be helpful, to be useful, to do things. We want to create, explore, help others, fix problems. Before we’ve even been on earth for two years, we want to help mum hang out laundry! Being “paid” is clearly only part of why we work.
Work is a God-given good but there are many groups of people who often miss out on the opportunity to engage in work that both enables survival and financial independence and provides meaning and satisfaction. People such as the elderly, migrants and refugees, those with physical disabilities, those with mental health challenges, those who are carers, including the primary carer of young children often have very reduced work opportunities. Sometimes this is a temporary loss, for others the inability to participate in satisfying work is a more permanent lifelong struggle.
Why the struggle? Well, I suppose, one can know that all people have inherent worth and purpose because all humankind is made in the image of God. However, it can be extremely challenging to remember this fact on a day to day basis and to feel it. I wonder also about the impact of the loss of meaningful and purposeful connection to ones wider community. We are social beings after all, and even the most socially introverted among us needs to feel purposefully connected to our society in some way. Even the very temporary loss of connection that the modern mother may feel immediately after the birth of a baby can be very destabilising. And, even though the cause of this loss of connection is the joyous and incredibly meaningful event of bringing new life into the world, without ongoing meaningful connection to her wider community, the mother often suffers.
I think the modern mother currently suffers for three primary reasons. Firstly, if she was previously connected to her community through meaningful work, she has (albeit temporarily) lost her link to a defining and sustaining point of her humanity: her ability to connect with and contribute to her community through meaningful labour (raising children and caring for a home is, of course, meaningful labour however in our individualistic society, this labour is largely completed alone, not in community). On top of this loss of connection, the modern mother has also lost what I think of as her “place” in society. In the modern western world, you are often only noticed and valued by community members if you are contributing financially to the economy. That is, when it comes to a strong sense of value and purpose, women no longer trade in the old currencies of marital status, a husband’s occupation or income, or the number of offspring we have produced. We now trade in a new currency – the currency of participation in the labour force. So when we disappear out of the workforce, our “place” in the world also vanishes. And that can be a terrifying loss.
Finally, the modern mother loses an important part of her identity. It is fascinating to me that we actually don’t really refer to the “labour force” so much anymore, especially when we are referring to women. We seem to talk more about kicking our goals, getting the dream job, following our passions. I wonder if this might be because, as a prosperous nation, if the modern mother in question belongs to the well-educated classes and is married or partnered, she is not necessarily working primarily to help feed and clothe her family. That is, the modern mother may contribute valuable and appreciated income to the family however, because of the general wealth of our nation, she is not labouring essentially to keep a roof over the families’ head and food in everyone’s bellies still. She is sometimes labouring, in part, for something which is also very important – a public measure of success or achievement in her chosen field of work, which guarantees her place, her visibility, her purpose in the world. Because, lets face it, modern parenthood is largely a lonely and private enterprise.
(On the flipside, considering burnout from too much work, check out this recent podcast for an insightful and wonderfully freeing discussion about modern day work ethic, our “total work society” where the work is the one thing is we are certain is good, which paradoxically leads to immense amounts of constant anxiety and worry about our status and our worth).
So, paid work is, for many modern mothers, very, very important as it is to modern citizens more widely. And yet, not all mothers are able to work in paid roles as much as they would like too, or at all. Chronic fatigue, social anxiety, living away from family and moving frequently have dramatically reduced my ability to work while raising young children. As mothers go from strength to strength in the paid workforce, what about those of us who, for whatever reason, are left behind or lagging in the race?
I began this series feeling guilty and sheepish for not properly utilising the hard-won “privilege” or “right” for women to work consistently across their lifetime, for wasting my opportunity to participate in and enjoy the ever-increasing female workforce. I began this series over twelve months ago as a 38-year-old mother of three feeling trapped in stay-at-home-motherdom. I had two interviews lined up for wonderful job opportunities which I hastily canceled in a last minute panic, as I was highly (and realistically) anxious about my real capacity to juggle work and young children. This resulted in feelings of deep frustration, dark despair, and plain old green envy of those who have been able to maintain careers whilst growing a family.
Today, I am winding up this series as a 39-year-old mother of three feeling much freer, more peaceful (honestly still a little envious of what others have been able to achieve!) but wholly more grateful for all that I have and all that I can do. I feel freer in the choices available to me, more peaceful about my real limits, and more accepting of the pathways that are not possible for me to take. I have more choices than I realised but more limits than I care to admit to and fewer options than I previously wanted to acknowledge. The world is not my oyster but I actually think that is ok! It certainly is very “real”!
Feeling more accepting of my realities has led me to now wonder – why, we don’t learn a little more from men in this space, when it comes to working while raising little ones? Men have actually never had it all, have they? They’ve not ever, in our modern world, tried, on purpose, to keep a career going and an entire household at the same time.
In the end, I’ve reevaluated what I consider work to be. Here is the dictionary definition:
1. activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.
2. a task or tasks to be undertaken.
Elegant, simple and to the point. Work is any effortful and purposeful task. Viewed in this light, work can be almost anything! Clearing up your kitchen after breakfast so that everything is ready for the next meal – good and meaningful work. Making a cake for a friend for their birthday – good and meaningful work. Helping a child learn a new skill, mowing a friend’s lawn while they are unwell, taking an elderly neighbour to a medical appointment – all good and meaningful work. Sharing a musical gift (and all the unpaid labour it takes to become highly skilled) to lift the spirits is good and meaningful work. When seen like this, it becomes abundantly clear that almost all of life’s worthy tasks can be rightly viewed as meaningful work. Basically, paid or not, we are all working, nearly all the time.
The problem, the glitch in the system, is how we view and value work, especially the dollar amount that we attach to certain types of labour. Good and purposeful work isn’t always valued as is should be. Much good and purposeful work is done without pay (or with low remuneration). That doesn’t make it any less of a contribution. That doesn’t make it any less “work-like”. It just means that some types of work are less valued even though they are still good and meaningful.
Part of our hyper-focus on paid work (as being the most meaningful work) is the relatively recent and exclusive focus on one’s career. But, when I stop and think about it, that’s not the only way in which to conceive of one’s working life. One can think of one’s work in terms of career; an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress. But one can also consider ones work more in lines of vocation; a person’s employment or main occupation especially regarded as worthy or requiring dedication. Or one’s work might be most appropriately thought of as primarily breadwinning; simply paying the bills. Perhaps it is good to remember that a paid job doesn’t have to be a passion project! One’s passion project might be something one doesn’t get paid for. And, some work is nearly always done in a voluntary capacity, and very appropriately so.
My eldest child turns 12 this year and my youngest has just turned 3. The preschool and daycare waiting-list in our new town is long which means a return to work for me won’t be for a little while. I actually genuinely don’t mind now. I’ll wait until a place becomes available and I’ll enjoy the remaining time I have full-time at home. I’ve made great progress in terms of fatigue, courtesy of the Chronic Fatigue Program at UNSW. I’ve worked on social anxiety, perfectionism, and a nasty habit of always putting other people’s needs before my own. I’ve cleared my head of all sorts of worries and insecurities regarding returning to work. And, if I’m really honest, I’m just not quite ready yet for a return to my work. My work is emotionally and cognitively challenging (which is why I love it). But I’ve just moved again, my husband has started a new job, my kids are at a new school again, and we all basically feel like we’ve been dumped by a huge wave. I’m not ready yet to front up to a paid job.
As this is my final year (or so) of what I suppose you would call extended-maternity-leave, I’m just going to luxuriate in it. Fortunately a few interesting little things (thanks God) have popped up to keep my little brain going, so I think I’ll be right on that front.
In the end, could I have done both? Raised young kids and kept working in my chosen career? Yes, probably. We would have had to make very different decisions though and, really, at the end of the day, when we have little ones in our home, I just don’t do the juggling thing very well at all, not without a bunch of support anyway. I embrace and stand by the decisions we made along the way. I cherish my children and the time I’ve had with them. I am grateful for the times when I have been able to work in fulfilling roles. I’m content in the ways I’ve been able to support my husband as he has found meaningful work to do.
There have been very lonely, very hard times of not coping very well mentally, but there have been wonderful times too. I’m naturally such a homebody and the flexibility of staying at home in the younger years suits me to a tee. I’ve had heaps of time to learn new things, read books, and just generally enjoy the small things. And after initial feelings of awkwardness and self-doubt, the return to the workforce after a big break doesn’t seem that daunting after all. I’ve had loads of time to think and reflect about what type of work is going to suit me and my family and I feel ready to restart the old career, once that preschool place finally comes up!
Thanks for reading along. I’ve clearly personally benefited from this deep dive into thinking about work, but I hope this little series has also been helpful or encouraging to you in some way.
I’m going to leave off with two quotes. The first is from the podcast I linked to earlier. The author, while researching burnout, asked a modern day American monk, who used to be a lawyer but now spends over five hours a day in prayer and only 3 1/2 hours working, what you do when you feel like the work is undone? This was his reply:
“You get over it”.
The second quote is from Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. Jane has become (by choice) destitute and needs work. Mr Rivers offers her a position as mistress of a school for children of the poor. Jane is well educated and has an active mind and Mr Rivers is surprised that she so readily accepts the post.
“But you comprehend me?” he says. “It is a village school: your scholars will be only poor girls – cottagers’ children – at best, farmers’ daughters. Knitting, sewing, reading, writing, ciphering, will be all you will have to teach. What will you do with your accomplishments? What – with the largest portion of your mind – sentiments – tastes?”
“Save them until they are wanted. They will keep” is Jane’s reply.