Saturday, October 07, 2006

working on the chain gang

I started a new job this week and it's really got me thinking about work and my deep attachment to it. I think I really understood this when I realised that I felt guilty being at home and I didn't at work.

I'll say that I don't work long hours or full-time, and I have a child who is extremely social and needs a lot of time with peers. She has a dad with a very flexible work schedule who is engaged with parenting and she also has an involved extended family and a fantastic kinder and childcare centre she loves. If you changed a few of those variables, life might be very different for me and I might feel differently about the things I am about to say.

Work is deeply important to me. I'm a stereotypical twenty first century career woman who has had children later in life. I have worked in some capacity since I was a teenager and when there was no paid work on offer I did volunteering. In my last job before Amy I worked 50-60 hours a week and I loved it.

Of course in the moment there are lots of things to not like about working - especially if you have a job you don't like, a workplace where you don't feel valued, a boss or colleagues that you can't get along with. A lot of the time you can wish you were at the beach and dream of living outside the responsibilities of paid work.

But work has always helped me to define who I am. It has given me purpose. It's no coincidence that I have spent most of my working life in government and the community sector, where I feel that the work I do makes a contribution to something bigger and more important than myself. Where I provide service.

I'll admit too that beyond the inherent satisfaction of doing a good and worthy job, I like the personal rewards. I like the involvement, I like the sense of belonging and I like it that people notice what I do. I'm as pleased when someone takes the time and care to teach me something and make me better at what I do as I am when someone congratulates me for something done well.

But aside from liking being in a job, I feel committed to the importance of having a job. Perhaps because I was raised by a single mother who understood that our long term survival depended on her getting a job with prospects, perhaps because I grew up seeing how much satisfaction and recognition she got from doing that job, perhaps because I saw other mothers unhappily trapped by dependency. I wanted the power to choose what I would do with my life and it always seemed to me that freedom of choice was intimately bound to economic independence and some kind of status in the workforce. This is something beyond the amount I get paid - it's about choices.

When adults used to tell me what a great boss and colleague my mum was I used to burst with pride. I loved that her wondrous light was visible to others too, and I got to say you might get her at work, but her heart is mine because I belong to her! She made me want to achieve great things in my life, to be good and smart and industrious. Seeing her in the broader world really connected my experience of her with a much bigger picture and I suppose I want this same thing for my daughter. I want her to know that the love and care you give to others can be balanced with the things that are important to you and the world beyond your doorstep. I want her to know there are places out there in the world for her too.

As I've grown into being a parent I have also appreciated all the other mother things my mum did - the patience, the discipline, the domestic arts she never neglected. She grew veggies and baked bread and sewed dresses and maintained a home and raised 3 kids. Her choice to leave a bad marriage was very brave and had some really hard consequences, but work was a great salve for her and more importantly it allowed her to do what she knew was the right thing for all of us. It made her strong and confident and smart. I am eternally grateful to her for doing what she did and for instilling in me an understanding that you need to work for the things you want in life.

Alison's previous post about the disappointments of birth resonated with me, but not about birth. I was profoundly disappointed when I realised that birth had led me to a place where I no longer knew how to be someone in the world. When I realised that my pre-birth plan for a few years of part time work followed by a resumption of my 'normal' life was so horribly out of whack with reality. I think I began to understand this the moment she was born, when I knew I would never again be visiting that place I used to call normal. And then when I returned to my old job on a part time basis it was even more apparent.

I am sad and angry that it seems so difficult to find a way to parent and undertake meaningful work. That to be a mother so often entails a loss of independence, not just because someone now depends on me but also because having a child excludes me from so much of the world. In the world of work my child diminishes me. And I don't believe this is desirable or inevitable.

I treat my new job as a privilege. I like that when I talk to Amy I speak with pride, that my engagement out there makes me more alive in here. I wish I felt more confident that my future held more jobs like it, that I could help her be confident that the world will help her achieve all the things she wants to achieve. For now I'll milk it for all it's worth.


Blogger littlesnoring said...

Thanks for your post. As I working (part-time) mum, I LOVE my job. It is both satisfying and provides much needed income.

But I think what I like about it the most, is that it allows me to see myself as myself, and, not as someone elses mother, or partner. I am just me and not another half of someone else. It is a great reminder that I have a life too and I find it a useful release valve from the stresses of motherhood and all that entails.

9:25 am  

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