Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The work of being me

This piece appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 110 (Autumn 2011).


At the end of last year I was constantly sick and felt run down, even exhausted. Yet other friends were juggling kids and paid employment; and here was I, a stay at home mum, so wrecked I fell asleep at nine o'clock every night. I finally had a big cry with my husband. I told him I felt like a complete failure: unlike so many other mums, I didn't even work, and yet I was so tired my bones ached.

He looked at me bewildered. He pointed out that I did at least a day's volunteer work every week. On top of that, I juggled three blogs and wrote more than a hundred posts for them in a year; I published ten articles in newspapers or journals; I drafted another half dozen articles that had been rejected and were sitting in the back of the filing cabinet; I gave a lecture, wrote a paper and tutored a subject at uni; and I was raising three kids, two of them pre-school. Put like that, I guess I did a bit of work. Perhaps it was okay to be tired.

Even so, at some level I felt like it wasn't. After all, it wasn't 'real' work. I enjoy fooling around with words; I enjoy reading with refugee kids; I enjoy preparing resources for churches; I enjoy tutoring uni students; and for the most part, I even enjoy my own children! And I've always loved doing the laundry. But when I enjoy it all so much, it's hard to feel that doing these things is anything more than a hausfrau fooling around.

Yet it is work that needs to be done. Someone has to do the washing, or we won't have anything to wear; someone has to raise our kids. Someone has to read with refugees, teach students and engage the church. Someone has to tell stories about this crazy sad and wonderful world. In a small way, I have been invited to be that someone.

When I put these activities together, however, they're not neatly encapsulated in a role like 'doctor' or 'lawyer' or even 'writer' or 'housewife'. Instead, they reflect a whole life, sparkling with love and play and work all mixed up together. This whole life is not a job; instead, it's no more and no less than just being me, responding to the invitations set before me: a process I might identify as following God's call. So although the things I do are clearly tiring, it is difficult to name them as work.

Sadly, too, just being me doesn't pay the bills. And so the other reason that all this industry doesn't feel like much is that it was, for the most part, unpaid. I earned a little from tutoring, a little from published articles, a little from click throughs from my blogs to an online bookseller – all up, about half a mortgage payment. Hardly enough to break out the champers, or feed and clothe three kids.

Living without making a significant financial contribution to the household is an ongoing exercise in trust, and at times I feel like a freeloader. Sure, my husband and I negotiated this position; it makes perfect sense for him to be in paid employment, and for me to run the household. But every now and then, I panic. I want to earn my own money, show him my worth, and stop being dependent. In our society, the money we earn is a quantifiable achievement, and the thing that so often honours our ability, training and hard work. I feel like I am missing out.

I find myself browsing blogs on how to make my own blogs pay; or thinking about articles that might sell for cash. When I'm really down, I even contemplate being a secretary again.

– and then I wake up to myself. I'm not going to put tummy slimming ads on my food blog, or gaudy advertisements next to a post on grief. That's far more humiliating than being financially dependent on someone who respects me for who I am, not what I earn.

There's a lesson in that. My husband knows my worth and values what I do; my friends and community don't judge me for the lack of a weekly pay packet – so why judge myself? While my activities may sometimes feel pointless for their lack of coherence or direction, they also feel right. Could I ignore the money, and think about the blessings of living out this call instead?

When I stop for a moment and reflect, I soon realise how great they are. After all, how privileged I am to be able to share books with young refugees. How fortunate I am to be able to tell stories, and to have found a medium to share them. How honoured I am to be asked to guide students in their studies. How fun it is to dream up activities and watch the church kids run with them. How delightful it is to cook for my family and friends. And how lucky I am to love doing laundry, and to have a family that generates so much of it!


  1. Alison, you are an amazing woman....as most mothers are! It's an extremely important task- raising the next generation, and in a conscientious, aware way. Sadly, society still values a pay packet over this, but I won't start on my ideas about the dominant paradigm in our still-overly patriachal society. As I read your post I thought about how you've described the lot of so many mothers in todays' world, including myself.

  2. so important not to be simply 'units of revenue'. Thankyou for being truly human - and thus immeasurable in worth - far more than a salaried price tag. You give yourself beyond counting - in this you image the creator closely...

  3. Ali so many wonderful insights into trust, work worth, work life and work v jobs. I want to comment on this last one - this is the way I think work is going in the future - the neat break up of paid and unpaid work will give way to whole life, some work being paid and some not and fewer people in full time jobs. By the way i get paid heaps more for my work than mothering but I think we all know deep down which one is really worthwhile. Great article thanks for sharing x LizHhunter

  4. Since I wrote this piece, someone handed me a book by Mary Catherine Bateson called 'Composing a Life'. It's about the idea that women (and increasingly men) have a life that is more a patchwork rather than the classic career arc; vocation and meaning lie in the interconnections and common threads that pass through the quilt. I found it a helpful way to think about it all; and she writes beautifully!

    See http://www.fishpond.com.au/Books/Composing-Life-Mary-Catherine-Bateson/9780802138040?cf=3&rid=1431225615&i=1&keywords=composing+a+life

  5. This piece is deliciously resonant! I am so glad your blog has come my way. Writing from home gives me plenty of time to invite doubt and question self worth so it is always wonderful to hear others inner dialogues and remember how normal I am :)

  6. Nice piece Alison. Yup, plenty of resonance here too!

    I also like the links to interesting books and the links on your shopping piece. Very clever idea.


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