"Mama, wipe my butt!" reached me from across the house. I was home with a sick 5-year-old, attempting to be both attentive mother and effective non-profit executive simultaneously. My response was to mute my line, remaining on a call with a partner as I cleaned poop off my child.
Last January, I continued to work through early labor, delivering my second daughter just three hours after ending my last meeting. "Heads up that I may need to take a minute to breathe through a contraction," were words that I actually said. Without a second thought. At least 3 times that day.
Why did -- do -- I do this? Addiction to work is an easy and appropriate answer. Work gives me a great high even in these extreme moments. The butt wipe while I remained on a challenging call with a partner? I laughed at the insight I got that sometimes you just have to clean up shit, even if you didn't make it. My laboring, as in delivering a baby, through meetings? I marveled at the distraction work provided from the pain. The constant demonstration of work as my priority over family? I pride myself in the model of feminist and servant leadership I provide my daughters, telling myself it's their world I work so hard for.
All true and all totally out of whack. But treating myself simply for workaholism misses the much deeper personal and cultural issues at play: Why do I, and so many others like me, define our worth almost entirely by our work or what we produce?
Personally, there is no doubt that I inherited this belief that my worth is my work from my mother. She brought me to her office frequently as a kid -- with a small briefcase in tow so I could play meeting when I was out of school. My parents both had good, public sector jobs to support our life in Buffalo, NY. So it wasn't for need that I worked around child labor laws to clean houses and babysit before I was 10.
So what was the return? My mom beamed with pride as I produced. The harder I worked, the more I could see my value in her eyes.
Thankfully, I have a very positive relationship with my mother. It was with love that she passed down the utmost importance of work to me. Work saved her life. It gave her stability and control within a family traumatized by the effects of mental illness and alcoholism. I am also clear that like most women and people of color, my mother had to work 5x harder than others to achieve success. But even that only gets part way to answering why work reigns supreme for her, for me, and maybe for you.
It is because we have built and subscribe to a society that asserts the value of a life is how much that human is able to produce. And just as we are held to account by a system that values work more than anything, our individual behaviors express and maintain this system's power. Can we choose a different path?
Ta-Nehisi Coates seamlessly connects slavery, the exploitation of labor, and our current climate crisis to 400 years of a dominant culture that values production far above life. The devaluation of black, indigenous, immigrant, foreign and future lives, in exchange for greater production and concentrated wealth, showcases the horrific scale and insidiousness of work supreme.
That history beats in the heart of our institutions, as our government values industry more than life in subsidies for a dirty energy system that kills hundreds of thousands of people yearly. It is in our everyday practice, when our identity is so entwined with work that some of us squeeze all we can out of ourselves and those around us so we can be ever closer to our imagined best. While others of us without paid work are shamed, shunned or criminalized.
We are told and subscribe to the belief that life is nothing more than a means of production when in reality work is but one part of our lives.
And I have bought into this perverted inversion to the point that I forget it is a myth -- and one that impacts each of us profoundly. For me, it means work calls over labor pains, emails over pre-dinner banter with my kids, and anxiety that I can always produce more -- that I am never enough. For you, it may mean only seeing your family on the weekends or holding a deep belief that you are nothing if you can't get and keep a job.
Work overwhelmingly dominates our lives and we are no better for it. Americans across the board face record illness, divorce rates and depression even as wages decline. Yet we make this myth real. Those of us in management positions too often reinforce a system that demands as much work as possible, especially from those without choice, who sometimes work multiple jobs to make ends meet.
For me, the solution has three steps: First, stand in my wholeness. Second, honor the whole lives of others. And third, do my part to bring about a society that values life above all, for all.
Step 1: Stand in my wholeness.
The problem of work above all is heavy and all prevailing, but the first step is simple. Not easy, but every one of us can do it in an instant.
It is as simple as breath in, breath out.
At any given moment, we can affirm that our worth does not increase or decrease based on what we produce. Even if we can't change the hours we work, we can change the way we see ourselves in those hours. We are alive when we are working and when we are not. And life is what matters. We can choose that reality -- connect to ourselves, each other, and the world around us -- in all its meaning; expand beyond work.
For me that means paying attention when my body, relationships and general well-being is clearly neglected. Constantly sick or in a days-long panic? Weeks since I've had a real conversation with my husband? My eldest daughter yelling at me to put down the cell phone? All signals that work has taken over, reminding me to reaffirm my value of life over production.
It means when a board member's unexpected request, a new potential partnership or an inbox full of emails has me working harder to no end, I pause and ask: What is the urgency? what is really mine to do? what's the worst outcome or even greatest life benefit possible if I say yes to something outside of work or wait a week to respond?
When I stand in my wholeness, I find it easy to take the next step.
Step two: Honor the whole lives of others.
That means reprioritizing the team's workload when one of us is called on to care for an elder. It means wishing our child care provider's son a speedy recovery instead of getting angry at the disruption in our day. It means responding with an honest, "yes, love?" the first time my daughter asks for my attention instead of a stern "WAIT" after escalating requests for help.
When my world is no longer crowded out by the constant drive to produce, I can see when I have pushed my team too far -- all weeks before, instead of when, a crisis hits. I am present to my family, noticing that the baby is steadying to walk or my husband is struggling to manage his diabetes. I notice how a few weeks of rain after years of drought in California has brought nearly more camellias than leaves to our trees.
And the more often I take steps one and two, the more I see the possibilities in step three.
Step 3: Take action for a society that values life above all, for all.
I can help bring about a different society by supporting policies that value whole lives, for all people. As a citizen, I can vote for candidates and call for laws that ensure everyone's life is supported by fair pay, clean air and water, and healthy community relationships. As the executive director of a non-profit organization, I can pay staff well, provide family-care benefits, and set performance expectations across the organization that while ambitious, account for the ebbs and flows in our lives. As one head of our household, I can turn off my email in the evening and trade off a date night each month with neighbors.
The supremacy of work is a complex problem. For me, this three-step solution, while simple, is also so damn hard. I trip all the time at each step, shaming myself for taking months to finish this post, getting angry that the baby has another cold, or resigning to the status quo at home, work and in our politics. And then I snap out of it. I start, again. Breath in, breath out. Remembering that wholeness can't be produced, it must be lived.
Sarah Shanley Hope loves to laugh, create, connect, move, and yes, work. She is the Executive Director of The Solutions Project and 100% campaign, which seeks to make clean energy affordable for all by inviting each and all of us to live more fully.