Sunday, December 11, 2005

Work and Love

This post will be lifted, adapted and possibly expanded from several conversations--with my mother, with Noelle, and an ongoing one that R-boogie and myself have been having for about a month now. This is the most lifted post ever, in fact, since the title comes from a book of Stephen Dunn poems. Spoiler is Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Cycle.

I was the child of a working mother. I say casually that "I was raised in a theater," but I mean it to the letter. My mother took me to work with her at the theater where she was casting; a baby-sitter stayed with me in a dressing room converted to a nursery, and when my mother was not in auditions I could often be found in a baby seat on her desk. Everyone at the Public knew me, and that would be the case for the many workplaces my mother had and the one my father had throughout my childhood. I always had a regular baby-sitter; multiple sitters until I was about six (most of them were fabulous, though there was one who locked me in that dressing room nursery and wouldn't let me out--fortunately my parents caught on incredibly fast), and then the same one, Roz, for many years after that, until I was fourteen and my sister eleven. These baby-sitters were important parts of our lives, important voices. So were my parents.

My friend Noelle, who was a nanny before she was a mother, is making firmer and firmer plans to stay home until her children (currently one eight months old, another planned but imaginary) are in school. She was a nanny for six years, she said, and feels she had such a role in raising the children she took care of that she's reluctant to give up that position in her daughter's life. I tried to explain to her that I never felt my mother had given up that position in my life, a topic on which I've had volatile and vulnerable conversations in the past. Noelle explained that she felt this was more for herself than for her daughter, but it was still important to her, more important to her than any work she could take up in that time. I wandered for a few days, wanting to be offended because the feeling made so little sense to me or to the context of my own life--how I was raised and how I imagine it will be in the future--but unable to find a foothold for offense.

I brought that conversation up with my mother, a card-carrying Second-Wave Feminist (okay, they don't really have cards that say that). She said she felt really strongly that every woman--in fact, every person--needed to have something she (for the sake of simplicity) really loved doing, something that was hers and not just about your kids. A lot of what your power and directive influence with your kids is over when they go to school; a lot more of it is over by the time they're twelve. (I'm not entirely sure I agree, but she's been a mother and I haven't, so hey.) If your children, even your family, are the only thing you really love, my mother said, you'll suffer far more as your children age and stop building their lives around you and your household.

In my view, the feminist movement was instrumental to the integration of work into one's identity. Not just a woman's identity, everyone's, because the concept of "career" or "breadwinner" could no longer itself make you a man. If the woman you were involved with could also have a job, you had to identify yourself by your particular job and what it meant to you. Our identification with our work, too, is something we pass on to our children, so I would add that to my mother's argument. None of this, I should add, is an argument against Noelle. That was what I realized--I didn't need a foothold for offense. Noelle does have a theater company to which she is tremendously important, to which she gives the same endlessly supportive and devoted and loving energy she gives her daughter--she doesn't give the theater company as much of that right now, and that's a choice she has made. It is more a question of how the mother feels (or how the father feels, but as The Mommy Myth rendered concrete, the societal conflicts are about the choices the mother, and not the father, makes) about the baby-sitter/nanny situation than the existence of said situation in the first place. If the primary caregiver (I consent, although I myself don't feel I had one primary caregiver in my childhood) is comfortable with the situation and still loves his/her child(ren) and knows how to demonstrate that, that is in my view the core of the matter. The parent might choose 24/7, or might decide that work also deserves her time.

It's not a question of the mother's time as much as the mother's behavior: does she devote the time she has with her children to her children? Can she make her work life accessible to her kids? (For me, at least, that was tremendously important: I knew my parents' co-workers, had visited their offices enough to be able to picture where they were, understood what they did for a living and why they liked it and thought it was important. That way, your parents' jobs aren't simply things that take them away from you: they teach you about the interests and values in your family.) It's a question of the relationship between the baby-sitters and the parents: does each respect the other's opinion, does each treat the other with respect even in his/her/their absence? In the end, there's no question that Roz, my baby-sitter for most of my childhood, was influential to my sister and myself. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. She knew our parents loved us, as she knew she loved us, and she made both those things clear. My mother loved us, and she made that clear. She also made it clear that she loved her work, leaving us free to love our own work as well.

And as much as I am capable of (I'll admit here that I'm a bit burned out right now), I love my work and have always loved my work. I have always committed to it vociferously, I've always believed it was important and worked as hard to know why as I have on the work itself. I'm happy to hold my upbringing responsible for that, and for the most part it's an aspect of myself, and of others, that I like and admire.

R-boogie and I have been talking about work and romance, about the times when our careers fill us to such a degree that we can't imagine where love--in a romantic relationship, in one's children--would fit. Our relationships to our work feel as complete as romantic relationships have felt to us in the past, as we currently see them feeling to others. They're different, obviously, but the way in which we're filled is similar (similar as in triangles). We identify ourselves in major part based upon our relationships to this work; it's not simply that we say "I'm a [my job]," but that we seem to live in them, that we integrate the work we do into the way we think and feel and socialize (or, sometimes, do not have much opportunity to think, feel, or socialize due to a certain lack of time). Laura M. once castigated contemporary society for the fact that "I'm a [my job]" is the answer to "what do you do?"--she said it ought to be, "I'm a good friend, I like to swim, and I can bake like nobody's business." In my recent world, the world of the last two months during which I've been working 75-hour weeks transportation nonwithstanding, my own answer has been, "What do I not do?" Which is foolish; there's plenty I don't do, and still what I list is my work, the two technically part-time, de facto full-time jobs and the one actually part-time job that have dominated my life. The list of "what I do" does not, in conversation, include the people I love or even the things I do that cannot pay me. Even as I've become obsessed in the last eight months with distinguishing love, the emotion, from love, the actions that result therefrom, even as I aim to center myself on the action/skill of loving, I still cannot manage in everyday conversation to include love in "what I do."

Cynthia Voigt has written a number of books for young adults; I tried her single novels in my youth and was always disappointed, finding her plot and character shifts too subtle and too irrelevant, but I have devoted myself this year to reading the full, seven-book Tillerman cycle. (Look for an upcoming post on sequels and serials; it's a new line of thought for me.) The series follows a family driven by independence and the need to work, to work at and for everything they do. The family includes those biologically related (the four Tillerman siblings, Dicey, James, Maybeth and Sammy, and their ruthlessly stubborn and beautifully hard-loving Gram, plus one novel, The Runner, set in the sixties about Gram's killed-in-action son, Bullet) and those connected by love and not biology (such as Dicey's boyfriend Jeff and her best friend Mina). Voigt is in, my experience, the ultimate chronicler of work and love. She's telling us about a family that works hard because it feels it must but grows into loving it, as you grow into loving the people who are important to you, and in the novels we see this conflation mature, particularly in the last novel in the serial, Seventeen Against the Dealer. "I think you're lucky," says Voigt's Dicey in that book, "if you have work you really want to do." Her antagonist says, "Sounds to me like you're making a virtue of necessity." At the end of the novel, having nearly destroyed her long-term romantic relationship and put her family and herself at risk, unintentionally, for the sake of her work, Dicey still returns to labor, realizing "that what she did when what things went wrong was to get to work. Since that was also what she did when things went right, she figured it was just what she did."

In the Tillerman Cycle, work becomes love and love work. And that, I would say, is the goal. Again separating love the action from love the emotion, which is relevant to many things but not all that relevant when standing alone--it's kind of like "good intentions"--what you care about deserves your labor: your energy, your focus, your devotion. Where, though, are working at individuals and working at an occupation not the same? Thinking about it, I honestly don't feel like I can make any sweeping distinctions about it--just individual job by individual job and individual human relationship by individual human relationship. That may be unreasonable, but it feels truest to me. One's work is, in the end, a composite of human relationships, including one's relationship with oneself. Perhaps also with objects, in which case the difference is simply that most of the time you could, techincally, control the objects' responses. But not always, as I'm sure my friends in fields like woodworking or gardening would agree. And people, you can never control their responses, obviously. But it's about making the actual labor something you love, i.e. making the process as much a part of what you need as the goal is. As it's much harder to have goals with people, in human relationships that's even more logical.


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