Beyond the work-and-family paradigm

I remember during my fortieth birthday party – a dinner at the Republic Bar in North Hobart, in Tasmania – the question arose of the ultimate human experience. Or at least, the ultimate experience for a woman. I remember at least two of my friends (both mothers) expressed the belief that having a child was it; and that you couldn’t know this until you’d had one yourself.

Not everyone expressed a point of view, so I don’t know what others at the table thought. All at the table were women. No one apart from me seemed to think any differently, or at least was prepared to say so then and there.

Perhaps the others viewed the question as being too sensitive, a question for each woman to answer for herself alone. And it is that; but it is also a question for society.

I still, over seven years later, find myself bothered by this silence; this inability to entertain even the possibility of other, equally profound, experiences available to women.

I ask you: Does it diminish novelist Iris Murdoch even the tiniest bit that she chose to have no children with her husband, John Bayley, and that she put her writing first? Was giving expression to her powerful mind somehow less vital, less impactful, in the catalogue of human experiences, than giving birth?

Does it seem a pity that Angela Merkel has merely been Chancellor of Germany for ten years, and before that a research scientist – for whatever reason skipping the opportunity to rise to greater heights and become a mother too?

I don’t mind that individual women consider having a child the peak of their own experience; but I am disturbed by the suggestion that this might casually be applied to all women, and that any other deep commitment – no matter what it is – is seen as second best.

* * *

Discussions in the media around managing work and family – while no doubt simplifying the issues for easy consumption – tend to suggest that career and family are the two fundamental choices to be considered between leaving school and entering retirement.

That the whole of this period of life must be either a precarious balancing of these two, or a choice of one or the other (as in, ‘sacrificing’ the having of a family to one’s career), implies that there is nothing else that could be of equal importance.

Whereas could the options not consist of work and/or family and/or – something else? Your vocation, your passion, your calling?

Even writing those words – ‘your calling’ – sounds so out of touch with the real world, with the realities of managing adult commitments, and with our tacit belief that any ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’ of real merit will or should attract remuneration. (Hence it will not really count until it becomes ‘work’).

Of course, the activity from which you derive your primary income might happen to be your passion. And if it is, lucky you.

Likewise, having and caring for children might be your particular vocation, and if that is what you are actually able to dedicate yourself to, lucky you again.

But many of us are drawn to something beyond our work, and beyond the possibilities of childbearing; something apart.

Trying to articulate the nature of this something apart feels awkward to me even still. Attempting to present it as (at least potentially) of equal value to the fundamental pillars of work/career and family feels like wishful thinking.

And yet.

Many of us don’t have families of our own, and don’t seek to. We don’t pursue the achievement of our potential through bearing and parenting a child, or through establishing a family dynamic.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we wish to mould ourselves to a demanding ‘career’, either; that the not-having of children is to do with the need or willingness to be completely absorbed in work.

It means, we’re looking somewhere else for our fulfilment.

I’m not talking about leisure activities – things that are done for relaxation or to distract from other things.

I’m talking about undertakings such as a sustained dedication to writing; creative exploration; deep political commitment; geekish play and invention. Undertakings which emerge when somebody thinks to ask How? and What if? and decides to pursue these questions for themselves.

While focusing on these sorts of things may be seen as selfish, it’s obvious it can be seen as just the opposite. These kinds of undertakings, which have the potential to change our world, clearly can have significant social value as well.

* * *

In ‘Here comes the (single) bride’, published on the ABC’s The Drum, Michaelie Clark writes of being ‘[t]ired of being treated with pity and suspicion for being 30 years old and happily single’, and of her resulting decision to hold a mock marriage to ‘Scot Land’ before moving to Glasgow to write.

The first person to comment, Gordon, said something that I found interesting:

Sounds like a kind of secular nun with better clothing options: A life dedicated to something worthwhile, with friends and colleagues presumably, but that doesn’t include a permanent relationship that might take focus away from the chosen path …

I reckon he was onto something there.

Following a calling that takes you beyond the confines of the work and/or baby path: I think it certainly could be comparable to choosing monasticism, in the sense that doing so might lead you into a life ‘whose ideal’, per the Wikipedia entry on Christian monasticism, ‘is different from and largely at variance with that pursued by the majority of humanity’.

The fact that monasticism was once a fact of life in many places suggests that, perhaps even in a society like this one, where we are almost all (within a certain age bracket) categorised as being either workers or nurturers of children (or a combination of both), we might be able, somehow or other, to consciously define another way. Some day.

* * *

Hannah Arendt writes in the prologue to The Human Condition (first published in 1958):

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society … It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [i.e. through the ‘advent of automation’], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won … What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them [my emphasis]. (pp 4–5)

We are more – must be more – than working machines … as challenging as it may be to remember it at a time when the media shouts out our current state of chronic overwork and underemployment. When companies are haemorrhaging jobs – liberating people, that is – like sand from a slashed sack.

Perhaps it’s turning out to feel not quite like liberation.

Still: it seems that the less able we are to lay a claim to time for our own meaningful pursuits, the more employers will expect to absorb our (unvalued, except in work) time from us. Surely a lose/lose situation, both for those who work and for those seeking work. Not to mention, eventually, for employers themselves, who already find themselves dealing with an often splintering and degraded workforce.

* * *

To regard the having of children as being a vocation alongside other vocations – an absurd proposition, perhaps, before the wide availability of birth control, and some time before the world’s population reached seven billion. Much less absurd now.

The question of responsibility – of selfishness – in relation to having children. With seven billion people trying to survive on this planet, can we really continue to countenance the idea that not having children is selfish?

The notion of parenthood as a tremendous sacrifice – not wrong, by any means – it really can be. But often the desire to become a parent is imbued with the urge a parent feels, whether conscious or not, to see themselves reflected in their offspring; to continue themselves; to have another chance. As understandable as it is: this isn’t selfish?

Perhaps those who cry ‘selfish’ are thinking of individuals who choose a hedonistic lifestyle – free of serious commitment to any other person – over the responsibilities of caring for children. I doubt such individuals are the norm for non-parents, however.

In one respect I can see the having of children as developing unselfish behaviour, and this is in the realm of putting one’s children before oneself. Some parents achieve this. Some do not. That experience, of loving another person more than you love yourself, must certainly be life-changing. But is it the stamp of mature, considered unselfishness, or merely a facet of parental behaviour? Are parents naturally less selfish outside of their family as well? Does parenthood actually make you less selfish overall? Are parents better people?

Even if they are: would the world be a better place if everyone had children?

I find it hard to believe it would be. Environmental impact aside, the abuse and neglect of so many children already in our world suggests that perhaps we’d have the capacity (at the level of society) to take better care of them if we felt them to be even more rare, more precious.

While having children is everyone’s right, it might be preferable, for the sake of our children, to move away from a position where it is deemed the natural choice – the ultimate choice – for any and all; to recognise there is another way.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Some pretty random thoughts on time and work

In an interview published in Dumbo Feather, lawyer and human rights activist Julian Burnside says that, to fit in time for his work and his diverse interests, he works ‘a longish day’, sleeps about six hours a night, and makes ‘extra time by filling in the little gaps in the day’.

This approach to time is not uncommon for those who most of us would agree are highly successful people. It works for some; but is trying to emulate this kind of punishing pace damaging for those not suited to it?

Private life is often lived as though it were work – ‘diarised’ and every minute packed with predetermined, socially sanctioned activities. I’ve heard of people who go regularly to the gym at midnight and are up early the next morning for a full and long day of employment; families where the lives of the children are as tightly scheduled as those of their professional parents, and where the parents block out ‘quality time’ to be with them …

Then there are the people  who say ‘I haven’t had time to scratch myself’, while their eyes gleam – they look exhausted, but also charged, on a high, as they head doggedly to the next commitment. It’s as if they’re caught up in a secret addiction – and I don’t mean coffee. At the same time there is an aspect to this – how to put it? – as though what they’re doing is for public consumption. As though the having of many commitments is equated with success – looks like success, therefore must be success.

Many workplaces extract everything they possibly can from every minute of their employees’ time. It seems as though many of us have learned to live like this all the time: to be accountable for every aspect of our lives, whether or not there is a boss looming in the next cubby of the open-plan office; whether or not we actually are a boss.

In fact, the term ‘time-poor’ is associated more with affluence than with poverty. The very presence of affluence suggests there is a choice that can be made, to do with making do with less. But somehow many of us go about things as if there were no choice at all. Maybe there often is no choice, especially if work claims more than a reasonable share of our time.

The objective – and what is expected of employees – often seems to be not simply to use time well but to cram it full – in fact, fuller than full, judging by my own observations well as articles such as this one in LifeHacker on chronic overwork. (How about this line: ‘So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren’t pulling their weight.’)

This kind of expectation not only allows no room for anything that is not strictly a task, a getting-done of something; but means also that frenetic doing begins to feel like the only socially validated option for one’s waking hours.

Where is the time to stand back; to assess; to ask questions; to think? Deeply think, I mean, not just problem-solve.

And what of the health effects of chronic overwork, such as migraines, heart attacks, high anxiety and stress levels, breakdowns and near-breakdowns (some call it ‘hitting a wall’), lack of emotional resilience and depression? I don’t mean to be grim, but it is no surprise at all to read this article on death by overwork in Japan – karoshi, they call it – usually by stroke, heart attack or suicide.

* * *

Time heals all.

Well, if it does, we often don’t give it much of a chance.

Thinking of the drugged footballer hurtling back into the game after suffering a serious injury, and the long-term damage that does to his body …

I wonder if, in our race to get on, which seems to become ever more pressured and condensed (perhaps as we measure our pace to that of our machines?), many of us are suffering from a failure to properly heal.

I’m thinking particularly of organisational change. It is all very well to talk about the necessity to adjust to change: these days corporates make ever more frequent transformations to their structures, their technology, their procedures, their personnel. Logos are adjusted, mission statements revised. No matter how carefully it is done, the effect of these changes can be overwhelming, leaving employees feeling vulnerable, distrustful, detached and abused, while they are called upon to remain calm, credulous and loyal, and most critically of all, to keep working. And all this on top of the existing illnesses – and the burden itself – of overwork.

Do we allow time within organisations, in our conversations about work, for those wounds to heal? Do we check for healing before sending people back out onto the field? Before moving on to the next big change?

Of course we don’t.

* * *

Is it really such a disaster, where we are able to do so, to step out of the life of a worker for a while?

Many parents do it. Admittedly, I’ve seen many women (it’s only ever been women) struggle to re-enter the workforce after taking a substantial period of parental leave. Eventually many have given up their old jobs and taken a new path. I think the reasons for this are complex, and obviously vary from person to person; but among those reasons is the difficulty of becoming again a worker: to accept the rules and pressures of the organisation; to cram one’s identity back into that box.

Time becomes that much more precious; money and status, less so. Identity also grows a different way, and for all the world many a woman cannot force it back, whatever the expectations around work may be; however much she may contort herself to appear to be as she was before.

Though leave entitlements, parental or otherwise, are reasonably generous in Australia, we do not have a culture of taking time … of contemplation. The stages of life are often mapped in economic terms: school, which is a preparation for work; work, which enables (if you’re lucky) the purchase of house, car and other assets, and the supporting of a family; retirement, which is the cessation of (paid) work.

There is long service leave, but I hear it’s being phased out. Sabbaticals exist, but only for academics. The idea of taking real, substantial time out, except perhaps for travel, is really quite foreign.

I sometimes think of the Indian idea of the retreat, in middle age, into the forest for contemplation, following a period of life which focused on material wealth and happiness.

Of course, written into this is the idea that having the material wealth in the first place is what provides one with the freedom to retreat from the world … just as downshifting is only possible when there is a more substantial income or asset situation to step down from.

There is, of course, unemployment – but there is little freedom in the search for a job, or in poverty. In fact, to borrow an idea of Hannah Arendt’s (writing about the ancient Greeks), to have too little work is to be held hostage to the necessities of life, and to the whims of others. It is, more or less, to live as a slave.

We have such a horror of unemployment, that we can’t always see the difference between being out of work against our will, and stepping away from work life to try something new; to think about something else. Just to think.

* * *

To treat time, free time, as a problem – boring – an absence of doing – I think that is a deeply troubling phenomenon.

Then again, we complain about not having enough time, then when we have it, we crassly fill it. The pressure to be doing is enormous. It actually takes guts to do less: to focus on only, and exactly, the thing(s) you really value.

* * *

I suspect that many who feel they do not have enough going on to fill their days fill themselves with substances, with distractions. Much advertising, especially, suggests we should all be living our lives at a heart-thumping pace. When we’re not working, we should no doubt all be off in our Jeeps, careening through the wilderness, hearts in our mouths.

Is this what many of us have come to believe a successful life should feel like? Fast, high, risky and competitive? (Expensive, too.) Is the only alternative doddering around at home in your dressing gown and slippers?

Giving everything to work, allowing our work to shape our aspirations for our lives – is part of the problem. If we do not step back we fail to appreciate how much we are defined by it – how we have come to speak that language – have those beliefs – see ourselves in terms of the space we fill in the workplace, and the events and interactions that happen within it.

The rest of the world and its possibilities become a blur – become almost irrelevant. Not only that – given enough of this, we may soon be lost to ourselves; come to see our own self as a blur.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Chocolate or normal?

The board in the café showed that ice cream was available for dessert.

‘What flavour?’ I asked the young guy behind the counter.

‘Chocolate,’ he said, ‘or normal.’

* * *

Didn’t he know that the most popular ice cream is ‘vanilla’? Or was something else going on here?

I play with this for a moment, thinking about what happened to vanilla when it was transformed into ‘normal’ by this guy. Let’s call him … Jack.

How Jack might have been suggesting that vanilla/normal is the standard against which all other flavours are measured. (A gold star to you, Vanilla.) ‘Normal’ doesn’t need to be articulated any further because it is so obvious; it is presumed to be understood.

How, on the other hand, he might have meant that vanilla/normal is boring, run-of-the-mill, predictable. What is ‘normal’ is not named because it is contemptible. To give what is normal its own name would be to neutralise it; whereas it is important to flag awareness of what is contemptible.

One way or another, vanilla – once it had been described by Jack as ‘normal’ – was no longer a flavour like other flavours. It had become something else.

* * *

What is this idea of ‘normal’?

Last week, while out and about, I took a quick survey.

Respondent #1: ‘Everybody’s normal is different. We all grow up with different cultures, religions, etc. that represent our “normal”. Living in a multicultural place, your sense of normal is more fluid; you’re exposed to the idea of a range of different normals.’

Respondent #2: ‘”Normal” is other people; the ideal person.’ She paused for a second. ‘We (teenagers) don’t think of ourselves as normal; we think of ourselves as unique.’

Respondent #3: ‘Abnormal is murdering people; excessive greed. It goes beyond the range of normal need and behaviour. But one has to eat … what falls within that wide range of necessary selfishness is normal.’

Myself, I have been focusing recently on ‘normal’ as it stands against the idea of ‘difference’ – physical or other.

Such varying ideas. It’s striking how ideas about ‘normal’ link, in very specific ways, to our identities and experiences.

* * *

‘Who actually believes they’re “normal”?’ I asked a friend some months ago, thinking of the inner turmoil that so many of us seem to experience about some aspect of ourselves.

‘Some people do,’ she says, with conviction, but without explaining. She had been telling me how some of her own behaviours were perceived by her sister as being abnormal.

But who, I wonder? Perhaps all of us, sometimes.

In domestic conflict, we childishly accuse: ‘Any normal person would (remember to shut the door … refrain from wearing a T-shirt with that many holes in it … know how to listen to me properly).’

How it grates to have to negotiate in a relationship for behaviours one feels to be normal – effortless – what anyone would do – what should be second nature. As if the negotiation were a waste of time, of breath. As if normal should just happen. As if, what’s more, our own assumptions and expectations were the natural state … as if we ourselves actually lived up to them consistently.

We struggle to see ourselves clearly. We blend in to our own world; hardly see what we are. We proceed as if normal – natural – were somehow embodied within us; as if we held the key to it.

We rarely doubt that our normal exists, is a real thing, but find it hard to articulate. We say – or think – ‘normal’ when it might be more useful to say, for the sake of clarity, ‘vanilla’ – or whatever it might be.

* * *

To be precise, to speak meaningfully, to specify ‘vanilla’ rather than simply saying ‘normal’, is one thing.

Yet when we do try to articulate some kind of a ‘normal’ – especially if we are coming from the position that what we think of as ‘normal’ is also what is desirable and good, both for ourselves and other people – the result is often dogmatic. It can reduce the world to absurdities that do not reflect the plurality of human life and experience.

But in fact I wonder: is it our very diversity – and our modern awareness of that diversity – that creates our need for a term such as ‘normal’? Do we need this word as a way to signal – and to draw in – ‘our group’, whatever that might be?

* * *

Much is said and written about the increasing homogenisation of the world we live in: from the loss of languages and cultures, to the increasingly felt pressures to look and behave in certain ways. There’s an idea that there’s a sort of sameness creeping into all our lives, even afflicting the way that we think.

My father would comment sometimes that in his childhood, expectations around clothing and fashion were far less restrictive than they are now; he thought people looked more different from one another than they do now. Looking back at photos, I have to admit I can’t see what he means, but I’m prepared to believe him, at least conditionally.

But have things really changed that much? The urge to conform seems always to have been very powerful, no matter the place or time, and no matter the exceptions who appear every now and again to shake things up.

One thing that is certainly true of our time: most of us can see others – vastly more others – on a day-to-day basis than ever before, due to the ubiquity of electronic media in our lives. As well as that, more of us than ever before are gathered in cities, thus increasing our chances of coming face-to-face with others who are highly distinct from us.

This might explain how it is that, at the same time as we are forced to become aware of, and to tolerate, many more different ways of living in the world, in many parts of the world we are also becoming more broadly alike – because we are attempting both to blend in with and to live reasonably harmoniously alongside one another.

It might also be said that our attempts to live as we see others living, or as we are led to believe they are living, could be having a profound homogenising effect.

A Philosophy Talk podcast and blog on the topic ‘What is normal?’ notes that it is possible to observe how ‘the common habits and strategies that successful people use … often become social norms to which others are expected to conform.’

In other words, we watch those who (we think) are more successful than us for signs of how to get on in life. After all, we are all competing against one another for our economic survival: these are things we really need to know. And having achieved some kind of success, most of us are not willing to jettison it by stepping noticeably outside the norm we adhered to to get it.

To get on, we might hide our differences in the hope that the qualities we share with others might therefore be more apparent – as in, ‘passing for normal’. Or we might adopt the normative characteristics of others in an attempt to be taken more seriously – as in the wearing of power suits by women attempting to gain entry to the ‘halls of power’ (something I fervently hope is no longer necessary).

By contrast, as an act of political protest, we might accentuate aspects of our identity that present an overt challenge to the ‘norm’, but which assert an affiliation with another group – as in Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade.

Whichever way it goes, ‘normal’ is the pivot around which these expressions of identity slide.

Maybe ‘normal’, however we mean it, is simply an attempt (at times desperate) to locate ourselves and the people we’re connected to among all the possibilities of being.

* * *

Steve Seidman, in his article ‘Defilement and disgust: Theorizing the other’, highlights that use of the word ‘normal’ in its current sense is relatively new. Referring to Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, he notes: ‘Elias underscores the absence [in late medieval and early modern European cultures] of the medicalization of the body and its ethic of normality and hygiene’.

Normal, Seidman suggests, is an idea that has come into use as the self – and the self in relation to others – has evolved, so that the self has come to be seen as  ‘sharply differentiated’ from others. As part of that, the acceptable social self is now required to maintain a high level of emotional and bodily control; to lack this control is to be seen not only as abnormal, but as unwell.

In ‘What Is Normal?’ psychiatrist Peter Kramer examines the way in which the option of being diagnosed as simply ‘normal’ seems to be narrowing in the psychiatry field, as more and more conditions are labelled and described. However, he says: ‘As the experience of mid-century shows, we can hold two forms of normality in mind—normal as free of defect, and normal as sharing the human condition, which always includes variation and vulnerability.’ In fact, he looks to the possibility of ‘an era in which abnormality is universal and unremarkable’.

In the Philosophy Talk podcast and blog referred to earlier, John Kerry and Ken Taylor, in their discussion with Charles Scott, also link the idea of normal to the increasing medicalisation of our lives. Where medical science attempts to establish what is normal through agreed averages and descriptions of typical symptoms, etc., so that it may more effectively identify and treat problems, at the same time it has given us a way in which to characterise ourselves and others as normal or abnormal – well or unwell – that can be as damaging as it is powerful.

Beyond the medical field, as Charles Scott reflects, the value of normalcy is social cohesion, and communal recognition and predictability of standards. The downside is homogenisation and the marginalisation of those who are seen to be abnormal.

* * *

But I can’t help wondering if, in critiquing the homogenisation and conformism of our own times, we are overlooking the realities of past lives. How truly free were people of the past to be what we might now think of as ‘abnormal’ – although in the context (of course) of the values of their time and place – while also being accepted for what they were, even celebrated?

You’ll be relieved to know I can barely imagine how to even begin to answer that, but it does make me think of something I was reading recently: Hannah Arendt’s description in The Human Condition of the ancient Greek polis, the realm of which ‘was the sphere of freedom’. She describes this freedom of the polis – the political/public realm – as being reliant first of all on its members’ ‘wealth and health. To be poor or to be in ill health meant to be subject to physical necessity …’

To be free to participate fully in political life, the male citizen of ancient Greece needed therefore to have wealth and health, and in addition to have ‘mastered the necessities of sheer life, by being freed from labor and work’. Mastering the necessities of life required that he have absolute and complete rule over a household consisting of his family and his slaves, who would entirely take care of those necessities.

She says, ‘To belong to the few “equals” (homoioi) meant to be permitted to live among one’s peers; but the public realm itself, the polis, was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements himself from all others … The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.’

In a way, it sounds ideal, if rather tough … but how very far from ideal sound the lives of everyone else – the majority – the ‘unequals’. For a moment, I find myself wondering if to be abnormal in the polis – especially if one performed there with exceptional courage – might actually have been desirable.

Just a thought …

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015