What Do You Do? What Do You Make?
In 2008 I was a homemaker and a mom and on the Board of Directors of my kids’ charter school. There was some issue we were trying desperately to get resolved with the School Reform Commission, and we were pretty sure that unless we found some personal connections with a few individual members of the SRC, we would just get lost in the shuffle. I had been out of the paid workforce since 2002, but I still knew some people who knew some people, and I had actually managed to arrange several meetings. Although the “world of work” had always made me feel anxious and inadequate, and I had no desire to return, this little flurry of quasi-professional activity had been a welcome break from my satisfying if sometimes tedious days of making a home for my family.
So soon after, when I was at a fundraising event hosted by a friend of mine and the President of the Philadelphia chapter of NOW asked me the dreaded question “and what do you do?” I decided to deviate from my standard “I’m a homemaker” and tell her the story of my work for the Board of the Charter School.
She was fascinated and impressed. She asked lots of questions about charter schools, and about the SRC, and the politics of it all, and we spoke easily and fluently and collegially for maybe ten minutes or so. But then confusion seemed to settle on her face for a moment, and she said, “Wait? How do you get paid to be on the Board of a Charter School?” And I explained that I didn’t, that I was a homemaker, and that my daughter went to the school, and that I volunteered my time as a member of the Board.
And she said, “Oh.” And she turned on her heel and she walked away.
I kid you not. What I “did” was work—valuable work—until she found out I wasn’t paid for it.
Sadly, this was not, by a long shot, the first nor the last time it was made clear to me that my unpaid work as a homemaker was worthless in the eyes of others. For most of my adult life, I struggled mightily, but mostly unsuccessfully, not to accept their estimation of the value of my life’s work.
Recently though, something clicked for me. It was the result of a hyperfocus deep dive into a YouTube rabbit hole of Seth Gobin interviews. It was the sort of days-long obsessive binge that in the past would have made me feel ashamed of my sloth and my lack of productivity. Instead what happened is I came back up, for the first time in memory, completely free of shame.
If you don’t know, Seth Godin is most often called a marketer, but I think what he actually talks about and writes about is our work in the world, and how dramatically that is changing in this post-industrial era. If you’re not familiar with him, there are tons of great interviews on YouTube that you should check out. He also blogs, every day since 1990 (it was a newsletter then), and if you type “S E T H” into Google, it’s the first thing that comes up. His blogging practice has inspired me to return to my own blog, and I plan to be here every day. I can’t untangle in one blog all the connections I’ve been making lately in the wake of my Seth Godin binge, but I hope you will keep coming back and join the conversation.
But I will leave you with one epiphany: my work has never been so much about “doing” but rather about “making.” And my work history is not so much one of professional failure as it is one of serial entrepreneurship.
The story we tell ourselves is everything. The key is figuring out how to believe a different story.