Sisters Are Doing it to Themselves? Invisible Labor and the Value of Work


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I'm in Target with a long list and a borrowed pen, both of which are becoming damper the longer I clutch them. It's hot in here, and bright. Why did I wear this sweater? What sort of rookie mistake was that? Never mind. Back to the task at hand. If you can't get out of it, get into it. Get into it and get it done.

I'm in the cramped greeting card aisle with a rapidly filling cart. One card, two cards, six cards, a dozen. Why is Target hot as an oven? Christ, Larsen. Get it together. Who's next on the list, and which card would strike the right balance between humor and warmth? This one? No, too earnest. This one? GAH! Why must every card for dad have a fart joke and every card for mom an overwrought poem? There. The one with the dog. Always the one with the dog. Get it done, get it done, get it done. Get out.

This week I Did The Cards, an annual event of extreme adulting that, like most events of its kind, is both tedious and wildly helpful. It involves combing my calendar for birthdays and anniversaries, compiling a list of both, spending at least an hour in Target buying cards for all anniversaries and birthdays on the list (As well as Valentines! Don't forget Valentines!), taking them home to sort by recipient and date, and finally filing them by month. Then, as 2016 progresses and I notice a special occasion coming up in our family calendar, I can just go to the file cabinet for the proper card. It saves time, because otherwise I'd have to make a separate trip to the store to buy a card for each individual. I don't find the initial investment of time pleasant, but I do it this way because it's the most time-efficient, cost-effective, and streamlined methods of maintaining strong emotional ties between our family and our extend families and families of origin. And I do it alone.

Sometimes I feel like a sucker for Doing The Cards, performing this task solo on behalf of my little family for the benefit of the larger, encompassing family as a whole. I do it, and I value it, and I dislike it intensely. I think what bothers me so much about it is its absolute invisibility to those who benefit from it. It is work that gets done, and it's rarely apparent who has done it all.

This past week has presented a buffet of examples of invisible labor, of which Doing the Cards was just one. This has got me thinking about traditionally female labor, which forms of gendered labor are considered valuable, and which forms are taken for granted. For those new to this term, here is a simplified definition:

Invisible labor refers to work that is generally done for no compensation and whose workers receive little to no appreciation or compensation. Think housework, child care, building maintenance, and the like. It's the work whose end function we often take for granted and, therefore, whose performer we don't recognize. The house is supposed to be clean, and therefore those who clean it are not lauded. The children are supposed to be cared for, and therefore the work required to care for them is taken as a given. This type of work is often performed by women.

And now that we've got our term defined, welcome to the buffet of invisible work that I bellied up to this week:

*A member of an organization I help run has a great idea for a complicated, time-consuming, 3-D, In-Real-Life project that would benefit the membership of the group. She breezily asks if the organization's all-woman volunteer panel of administrators could implement it, thanks.

*Doing the cards. The godforsaken cards.

*And then there's Hoda. (This is how I generally end all lists, but I'll explain further below.)

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While promoting her new collection of career success stories, Where We Belong: Journeys That Show Us the Way, Kotb was intereviewed for the January 18th installment of Time Magazine's last-page send-off column "9 Questions." Asked for advice for young working women, Kotb answered, "Do the jobs that no one wants to do. And don't do what you're asked - do more than what you're asked." At first glance, it's inoccuous enough. Of course young workers new to their fields should work hard at becoming indespensable, which often means doing the work assigned to employees with the least seniority or experience - the jobs that, often, no one wants to do. And it's always smart to exceed expectations rather than simply meet them.

But that's not what Kotb is saying. She explicitly says to volunteer for work no one else wants to do - the shit work. And she recommends doing extra quantities of this unappreciated, unpleasant work beyond the amount assigned. There is no time limit alluded to in Kotb's recommendation to perform such work and so much of it, and there is no reference to this being part of a larger career strategy. It's just what you should do as a young working woman.

So, my questions are, at which point does devoting one's time and effort at shit work constitute a smart career strategy (or, for those of us who are working at home, life strategy), and at which point does it simply make you someone's bitch?

(Friends, I hate using such a hateful gendered epithet to describe a miserable position, and I agonized about doing so [as both Danica and my Smartner can attest]. Sadly, it is the best word I can find to describe the kind of feminized subordination that Kotb is suggesting young women volunteer for in their fledgling careers.)

Here is what it looks like, performing the B-word that I squirm to write:

*Volunteering for shit work and doing tons of it because you are a young woman in a new job and either, 1) your main goal is to just not get fired, or 2) Hoda Kotb told you to in the pages of Time.

*The highly qualified, female, Masters-degree-holding teacher at my old job who once - ONCE - volunteered to clean out the staff refrigerators and then was "volunteered" to do that job every week.

*A volunteer organization leader saying yes to implementing a complex and lengthy project at a member's casual request (and for which that member would likely take credit), which, I assure you, did NOT happen.

What it does not look like:

*Working hard at your job and excelling under difficult circumstances, even when it's at the behest of other people and in the service of higher needs. Like, oh, you know, the women of the United States Senate who, unlike 100% of their male colleagues, showed up to work regardless of a blizzard that shut DC down. Doing your work well with an eye to progress, growth, high performance, and advancing toward a goal is very different from what Kotb recommends.

*Spending hours compiling and mailing greeting cards to beloved family and friends. Yes, this is emotion work, and yes, it is largely invisible. But I have decided that it is worth it, and, because my Smartner works 60+ hour weeks, I'd much rather perform this task if it frees up his rare unoccupied hours to spend with the Smartlings. Sure, it's traditional "women's work," but it has value to me in how it lubricates the skids of our family life, and so I do it. I don't like it, but I do it.

So, friends, before we all listen to Kotb and make ourselves whipping-girls, suckers, servants, or whatever more acceptable term for "bitches" that you can come up with (because I'm seriously stymied here), let's decide for ourselves what is valuable work and labor, regardless of its visibility. Let's decide what is beneficial about our work and make that value - and that work - visible. Let's recognize the invisible work all around us and appreciate its worth and the worth of those performing it. Let's do the work no one else wants to do - and then the work that we want to do - in service of a greater career goal. Let's bust our asses to be successful and make our jobs and our lives work for us, not because we have been volunteered to do so or scared into volunteering to do so.

Women: our work has value. We have value. There is enough within our culture that devalues women's labor and women's contributions to the workforce and to society. Let's not volunteer to devalue our effort and our expertise because we're young, because we're women, or because an author purporting to offer career inspiration tells us to.

I see your hard work, friends. I see you. I appreciate you. Good job.

© Designed by J. Terriq   ue in 2015

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