Always Working: Some Thoughts on Working-Class Dreams and Parenting Under Capitalism. Or Why I’m Happy My Parents are on Vacation.
Late at night as I sweep the kitchen floor, long after the children have gone to bed, I hear my mother’s voice echoing from a place some thirty years ago:
“You guys are a lot of work. You know that?”
I didn’t know that. I had no understanding of what she meant until I suddenly had three kids of my own.
“Suddenly” is not an exaggeration. I went from having one to three over night when I became a step parent. Having one child was hard — is hard. And I’m not interested in playing the game of who has it harder. We all have our struggles. But having one child was (for me) hard in different ways than having three has been.
Parenthood is work under capitalism. Maybe under any conditions. I don’t know. But when you already have to work work (add to it that your work might be physical labor, and might be the kind of work that numbs your soul rather than feeds it), and you’re exhausted from that, doing the job of parenting feels like extraordinary work.
I am lucky to have paid work that feels fulfilling. But many of us who are not yet solidly middle class, also often work nights, work weekends. Always working. And will the house ever get cleaned?
I live in a small apartment and we pay someone once a week to come in and do the mopping, the vacuuming, the scrubbing of the sinks, tub, and toilet. But I was embarrassed to admit this to my mother recently because I know she would have never paid money to someone else to do a job she could do herself, even when she was exhausted at the end of a long day of working and taking care of kids.
Paying someone to clean your house is seen by working class people as a middle class luxury. But this does not feel like a luxury to me and my partner. Rather it feels like a necessity for the conditions of sanity. And it took me a minute to come to terms with it, but now I justify it easily. My family does not have cable TV. That’s an expense my parents definitely have felt justified in having over the years and it’s no coincidence that my father was the one most enjoying the cable TV while my mother was the one most responsible for cleaning and keeping the house. Each family has its own priorities and class issues are also often gendered.
I have a lesbian life-partner who works full time and also splits the childcare and domestic work with me. I have an ex lesbian life-partner who I still co-parent with evenly and who often graciously steps in to also help take care of my step sons. I have three part-time jobs that, in total, add up to working more hours than one typical full-time job. I have erratic hours, less-than-desirable working conditions, and not much job security. I have an almost PhD which, when complete, will hopefully lead to better working conditions. But I am not holding my breath.
In the meantime, someone has to go to the store (usually on the way home from work). Someone has to buy the groceries, put them away, feed the children and clean up.
Someone has to convince them to do their homework. And sit with them while they do.
My parents did not do this. They might have asked each night whether I had homework or not. I typically lied and said no. Or lied that I had done it already. They never checked. And I cannot blame them because that would have been even more work for them. I know that now.
I almost never did homework. I was a C student. And no one complained.
My parents worked hard their entire adult lives. They both had middle-class aspirations and wanted their children to have the kinds of things their parents were unable to give them. Now, in retirement, my parents have time and only a little bit of money for leisure. As I write this they are on their second trip in two months to Arizona. I know they felt at least a little bit guilty about deciding to go on this trip. They have rarely spent time or money this way despite the fact that their children have been grown and gone from home many years now.
I haven’t even begun yet to really sit with, let alone write about, all of the ways my parents — my incredibly loving, incredibly smart, perfectly imperfect parents — sacrificed their own selves, their own dreams and desires, and the ways that our working-class circumstances largely account for that. It’s a story I hope to understand and write someday.
For now, my parents taking this second trip in two months to Arizona makes me incredibly happy. I love thinking of them finally getting the chance to do something fun — something just for them. Something that many of my friends’ parents have always done — go on vacation.
Have you ever asked yourself: who has time for leisure? Who gets the privilege of leisure? This is something middle class people take for granted.
The working class know: A coffee break, or better yet a cigarette break, because you get to go outside — these things feel like stolen moments of leisure when you can only dream of taking a vacation. They feel like stolen moments of leisure in any ordinary day when you’re expected to work from the time your feet hit the floor until the moment your head hits the pillow.
I can count on one hand the number of vacations my family took when I was growing up. We camped. Tents each year, until the last vacation I remember taking where we finally upgraded and stayed at a campground with cabins.
But never a hotel. Hotels would have definitely been seen as the pinnacle of luxury or leisure when I was a kid. To some extent, I still see it this way. I didn’t stay with my parents in a hotel until I was in college and we were making the long-haul road trip across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois — to bring me to college — college, a place my parents never got to go.
So much here that remains to be said: How racism, white supremacy, and evangelical Christianity all factor in to my story and the story of my white, working-class family. How, like Audre Lorde said, “poetry is not a luxury” and yet how working-class people are taught to see the act of writing or any art done by working class people as frivolous and self-absorbed. How there is a working-class expectation that no one likes their jobs — that jobs are not meant to be fulfilling or enjoyable, but that we’re supposed to do them and be grateful they let us put food on the table. How many of us have struggled to overcome this mindset, and have tried even to bridge the chasm between work and art and to not pass this onto our children even though the work of making art so seldom puts money in the bank. How sad it is that my frustrations as a parent probably have more to do with my own exhaustion and lack of resources than they do with anything the kids themselves are actually doing.
Last night, collapsing into bed, I slept instantly and hard. But sleep was brief. We are all tired this morning and I don’t remember my dreams. Just before the alarm, it was more image than dream, words floating across corners of my mind — I saw this: #latecapitalism. Can you believe it? My sleeping brain just hashtags now. I guess, who has time to dream?