Labor, Stress, Leisure, and other thoughts

I’ve been thinking about labor for the last couple of days as I’ve tried to settle into a routine where I can get my work done for my course, keep a couple of other balls in the air, take care of a household and children, and still find time for down time.  It feels lazy to say this, but I don’t like working all the time.  I’ve tried in my life to find work that doesn’t feel like work.  I feel completely lucky to have the education and skills to pursue that kind of work as opposed to resorting to manual labor (which may not feel like work to some people, but would to me).  For whatever reason, as I’ve gotten older, the pressure of work, even enjoyable work, leads to major stress.  Twice in the last couple of weeks, I’ve endured massive headaches brought on by stress, exacerbated by my TMJ condition, which was itself brought on by stress.  A vicious cycle, to be sure.  I hate that this happens and as I’ve said before, my energy is just gone when these things come on and I don’t feel like doing anything and then I feel guilty for that which stresses me out and thus we start all over again.

From a financial standpoint, we don’t need for me to have a fulltime paycheck for us to survive.  We’ve made enough cuts now and the little bit of extra income I’ve brought in and that Mr. Geeky has earned through grants and service activities have mitigated much of the gap that existed in our spending and income right after I quit.  But, of course, there are things like remodeling projects, travel, and the looming college education for the kids that have more than once raised the issue of my going back to work.  Not in a desperate, “omg, you have to find a job now kind of way,” but in a “well, if I went back to work . . .” kind of way.

And that brings me to another kind of labor, the labor of keeping up the house and taking care of the kids, a majority of which falls on my shoulders whether or not I’m working.  Added to the general stress of my former job in and of itself was the stress of trying to manage all the kids’ activities, keep up with laundry, keep the house relatively neat, cook meals, buy food for said meals, etc.  And this goes back to the “I don’t want to be working all the time statement.”  I get most stressed when I feel like that’s the case.  So, for example, I leave for work at 8:30, get home at 6:00, prepare a meal, supervise homework, mabye a break for tv or a game or something before having to supervise bedtime.  Yes, even with tweens and teens, we still have to make sure that the kids go to bed in a timely manner.  Because there’s so little time during the week, shopping, laundry and other housework fell to the weekend, meaning that a chunk of it was taken up with work.  And, often, Mr. Geeky does “paid” work–grades papers, does research, performs some kind of service–on the weekend.  I’ve read the academic blogs; I see you out there trying to say you’re not going to work on Saturday or Sunday.  You almost always fail.

All of my self-improvement projects also start to feel like work.  Exercise, decluttering, educational activities.  It’s enough to make you go crazy.   Tim Burke’s post about the declining value/open sourcing of cultural products gets at the heart of some of my dilemma:

If the 1950s-1990s were a highwater mark for the commodification of culture in the United States, it’s partly because they were also a highwater mark for the sequestration of leisure time from labor time. For the last three decades, working Americans have seen that leisure time slowly clawed back for the sake of work or for the sake of a productivist temperment even outside of work, towards a belief that the things we do should somehow always be generating value, towards a classically bourgeois construction of virtuous leisure. . . .

Productivism again reigns as a supreme bourgeois virtue. Time spent just listening or reading or viewing, if you can’t recuperate it as time getting educated or improved in some tangible way, is shameful time, not a shared triumph of the middle-class milieu.

Tim uses these points in a larger argument about why cultural products have lost their value.  In part, it’s because we don’t have time to engage with them.  And in part, it’s because there’s an attitude prevalent now that says if you spend an afternoon reading a book or catching up on The Wire, you’re wasting your time, maybe even “our” collective time.  Tim doesn’t mention this, but there is a kind of “omg, Americans aren’t making anything, aren’t as productive as we used to be; the Chinese are going to eat our lunch” panic out there.  As I recall, though, productivity has actually been on the rise.  Anyway, this is part of my problem.  My decision to work or not work, work part-time or full-time, spend time doing household work or writing that may or not pay off, spend time when most “normal” people are working playing video games or watching tv or reading a book is getting all caught up in this productivism mentality that I have internalized.  I keep thinking not about how I “should” be spending my time based on what’s best for me personally or my family, but thinking about how spending my time looks to the outside world.  (Go ahead, send in the psychoanalysts.) And honestly, my family, even my immediate family, are part of that outside world.  I feel the need to justify what I’ve done all day, detailing the laundry that’s been done, the writing that got done, how many hours I spend prepping for class.  And that’s not coming from them, believe me.  They never look at me weird if they come home and find me in front of the tv or playing WoW.

What I’ve been thinking about, then, is what labor and how much of it I really should be doing, not from a perspective of whether or not that labor “looks good” to the outside world, but from a perspective of what makes me feel good–and by good I mean, relaxed yet stimulated.  In other words, though I like my leisure time, I’m not one who enjoys spending all day every day doing nothing but leisure activities.  Even though it’s work, I like writing.  I’ve spent an hour writing this damn blog post and I have no idea where it falls on the work/leisure spectrum.  It feels like work, but it feels like leisure too because it’s not connected to a paying job.  Getting paid to do something alters my relationship to labor, of course.  If I followed my “feel good” argument to its logical conclusion, I wouldn’t evaluate my students’ assignments this afternoon.  Instead, I’d either engage in some other kind of unpaid labor or I’d use some of my leisure time.   And honestly, I get a good feeling about evaluating student work that has nothing to do with getting paid to do it.  It’s almost like a community service.  I feel like I’m helping them improve something about their lives, which will, in this case, pay off for education as a whole when they enter classrooms.

I honestly don’t know what my answer is to this dilemma.  I just know that I need to find something that works for me, and get over my anxiety about whether or not I’m working “enough.”  The funny thing about this whole dilemma is that it comes from my freedom.  If I had a full-time job, there’d be no real issue.  I’d just do the work that was necessary.  As I’ve said a million times, I like where I am, but I’m realizing it’s more challenging in many ways that it seemed at first.

7 Replies to “Labor, Stress, Leisure, and other thoughts”

  1. Like you, I’m a mom (although my kids are 7 and 9 and thus still need more care) and I’ve gotten into the vicious circle of feeling utterly stressed, but too guilty about taking time for myself or for leisure. I have myself completely trained and can’t sit down for more than three minutes without thinking of something else I should be doing.

    The one thing that helps me get better clarity is when I think about what I’m modeling for my daughters. Especially because of the gender thing, it makes me cringe to think they might be learning “Dads get to sit on the couch, Moms get to work every moment they’re not asleep.” I don’t want them to grow up thinking that a woman’s only value is the labor she provides, that a woman is somehow not worthy of leisure, or that they could never take time for themselves. About ten minutes into this train of thought I invariably leave the laundry go, pour myself a glass of wine, and watch a few innings on TV. It works for me.

  2. Jen–I think about that modeling too. And my daughter has actually given my husband a hard time if he’s not doing anything and I am. It gets his butt in gear pretty fast. 🙂

    I was telling my husband about this post and he said to me, go take a bath, read a book, watch tv, quit worrying so much. It is hard to get out of the cycle, though.

  3. I schedule leisure time on a daily basis. But of course, my leisure time is after 8 — when all three kids are in bed. But still, I go out with friends, go to book club meetings, etc. My husband works some weekends, but I still sign up for workshops and writing meetings and things that for me are very fun and fulfilling.

    And sometime when my husband pulls into the driveway, I’m waiting in it, to throw my bag in the car and take off even before he gets in the door. Sometimes I just need to write in the evening, and not after the kids go to bed. But I suppose my husband does a lot compared to others — it’s still not 50/50 but I think we’re fairly close.

  4. Anjali–that’s a really good suggestion. I should sign up for more stuff like that. I think I worry that it would stress me out rather than relax me. But it would probably be good to be around some like-minded people.

  5. Laura,
    Personally, I have to actually leave the house to get leisure time. Otherwise, children and laundry and dinner clean up, will beckon. Some nights I’m so tired I want to drop — but I still force myself up and out to the local Starbucks with my laptop. In the end, the effort to get out has been well worth it!

  6. Anjali,

    I think that’s what I need to do. The house speaks to me and the clutter calls out to be cleaned up. Better to be out of sight and out of mind.

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