Spectrum: White Lines on the Meter

My boyfriend and I have crafted a rich, warm, healthy, fulfilled and fulfilling life. It’s taken (and takes) lots of hard work, lots of good fortune, and lots of privilege (yet what we call “privilege” in this society, and the “privileges” upon which our life rests, are things which we should extend to everyone–I tend to see access to water, food, health and dental care, shelter, music, education, art, dance, exercise, literature, and equity as basic human rights, not privilege. Is it “privilege” that I am able to experience these human rights? It’s a crime that not everyone is. This is a tangent to be explored elsewhere, not here. Back to the topic at hand!)

It took us a few decades to build this life. Our first fifteen years together, we lived below the poverty level, moving often (over 30 times during that epoch), making it (and usually just barely making it) month-to-month. This was a time in the U.S. of rising homelessness, and the fear of becoming homeless loomed. We had no savings, and we rested on good fortune to protect us from crisis.

We did have a safety net in my family, who would have taken us in, if needed. And we are white, educated, with no visible disabilities. We looked like hippies and lived a counter-culture lifestyle, so that kept us on the outs in some ways, but it was always seen as a choice, and we lived on the West Coast where there was comfort in tribe. We fit in, even when we didn’t fit.

Grad school was what changed things for us, allowing me to discover and create a career that worked for me, for maintaining our free and creative lifestyle, and to allow us to, finally, buy a home, plant a garden, and settle in.

Keeping this life going takes about 98% of my capacity. This isn’t unusual. When I think of all the working women I know, each seems to be using 90-110% of their capacity to keep their lives, their homes, and their careers going. This is especially true for women with children.

This doesn’t seem to be the case for men. The men I know at work seem to be using around 40-60% of their capacity in their careers and at home. While the women are on the edge, with the taut lines of stress around their mouths, the men, generally speaking, relax their bellies, walk more slowly, and take the time to, sometimes, simply stand and look out at the sky.

(Back to the topic of privilege, which seems to want to assert itself in this post: that relaxation and within-capacity-operation that men enjoy in the work place should not be a privilege. It should be a basic human right, extended to women, too. It’s not equitable that women have to work twice as hard, generally make 20-40% less, and generally receive fewer promotions. It’s not equitable that, in addition, 60-90% of the housework falls to women.)

What happens, then, for someone using 90% or more of their capacity to keep things going when something extra comes along? When children are sick, cars break down, dentists or doctors need to be seen, and the cable guy needs to come? At these times, unless we have extra help, we exceed our capacity.

I feel fortunate that my present career doesn’t require full capacity, or at least not most of the time. (I do have rare periods of special projects when it does take 100-110% capacity.) When I taught full-time at the college-level, my career demands exceeded my capacity. A few weeks into the term, I was stretched too thin. Weekends were spent trying to recover, when I wasn’t reading papers, and those long winter and summer breaks were devoted to recuperation.

When my current web-editing job was 40 hours a week, and I was teaching three courses a term online, too, career-demands were around 100%. But for the past decade, I’ve been working only six hours a day at my office job. This makes my two jobs sustainable. I have long hours every morning to relax and fill myself with the garden and the cello. Evenings have long hours for enjoyment and relaxation. And the work itself is engaging and often fun. Teaching tasks happen on weekend afternoons, online, in the comfort of my bright and sunny living room, with Beethoven quartets playing on the stereo. This works for me, for our life.

During these past two weeks, I’ve been home on winter break from both jobs. Life during these past two weeks has required 10-20% of my capacity. It’s felt unusual, and it’s only in the past few days that the gears have shifted and I’m feeling comfortable with these lower demands. On Monday, it’s back to the office, and I’m looking forward to it. I like that full-meter feeling.

Comparing the demands of these past few weeks to the demands of the normal work week has me evaluating what, specifically, it is that requires so much of me during the work week. At home, the daily tasks of preparing meals and caring for the garden and household aren’t draining–they’re fulfilling, contributing, rather than using up, my energy.

At the office, the tasks I complete (converting text to html, correcting html code, designing web graphics and web pages, writing and editing copy) also contribute to my energy. I love the attention to detail, the immersion of coding, the satisfaction of presenting information clearly, and the rewards of finishing tasks.

The demands seem to come in two main areas: executive function and social interactions. Much of my energy goes towards prioritizing projects, scheduling work, sorting demands, and all of the micro-details connected with that, in addition to the transitions of starting and stopping. It requires a lot of energy to handle the executive functioning aspects of multiple projects, responsibilities, and tasks.

The social interactions seem to draw considerable amounts of my energy. If I didn’t make a point to talk with others, I would probably quite happily simply walk directly into my office each day, communicate primarily through email, and only talk to those directly involved with the projects I was working on and only about these projects. This approach wouldn’t require extra energy on my part, and I’d feel quite satisfied with it. But I expect that I would experience negative consequences. It seems to be required to greet and chat with the receptionist, with the friendly person in the office off the hall, with my office-mates, the others in our department, and my supervisor. It takes so much effort to do this. Is it possible that 50% of my overall capacity goes towards these social interactions?

I think it’s likely. Fifty percent for non-task-specific social interactions; forty percent for executive function: that leaves 8% for the actual work, which seems about right! This may not be an accurate measurement of where my energy goes, but this is what it feels like to me.

I’ve often wondered how it is that my workmates are able to socialize in their time off. Most of the women I work with get together with friends after work and on the weekends. They look forward to this. I’m not able to do this. All of my social energy is used up during the workweek, and if I got together with friends during my time off, I would be running in deficit in no time at all.

I finally figured out that it’s a matter of where do we get energy and where do we get drained. For my workmates, socializing, at work and in their time off, does not drain them. It fills them. So for them, to get together with friends after hours brings enjoyment, fulfillment, and refreshment.

For me, the social interactions at the office are tasking. Social interactions outside of the office would be more than I could handle. In my hours away from the office, I like to walk, practice yoga, prepare meals, spend time in my garden, play my cello, daydream, write, play video games, read, and think.

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