The American Way of Work by Katharine Coldiron
Updated: Jan 6
Yesterday I left work around 2 PM, as always. I picked up some stamps, turned in a library book, and arrived home just before three. I took my shoes off, but I didn't have to change clothes. I decided a few years ago to stop dressing for the office the way I think I should, or the way women dress for the office on television. Instead I wear clothes I like, that look nice, that aren’t too radical for a law office, that don’t pinch or jab me, that I'd wear to a party, maybe. I picked up The Faraway Nearby and lay down on the couch to read for a little while. I fell asleep for about half an hour, and when I woke up, I revised my to-do list for the weekend and then read some more (Anne Carson's translation of Sappho) before it was time to start dinner.
My husband got home from work at about 6:30, which was a nice change. For the past several months he's been working from seven in the morning until eight or nine at night. He's a video game designer, and he's been laboring on the year's cycle of downloadable content for the most recent Call of Duty game. I'm still not accustomed to the treat of eating dinner with him.
We ate and talked about our days. Work for me was all right; the lady from my boss's daughter's camp still didn't call me back, but the new file clerk was doing well. Work for him was all right; his bug list was shorter for the first time in weeks, but one of the artists on his team was in for a nasty surprise about how her vision had evolved while she was out of the office. I collected our dishes and took them to the kitchen, and then we separated, me back to the couch for more reading and a bit of writing, him to the computer room to play Magic: The Gathering online.
I dropped a bookmark in Sappho and went into the computer room. "Matt," I said.
"Do you think there's something defective about me?"
He turned around. "What?"
"I slept today," I said. "After I got home from work. I've taken a nap almost every day this week."
"So you must be well-rested," he said.
"But you work all day," I said. "I only work until 2 and then I come home and relax. You have an 11-hour day when things are good and a 14-hour day when things are busy."
"I don’t really mind," he said. "I like my job."
"Don't you think I'm weird? Or broken?"
"No," he said. "I think siestas are an established tradition in other countries. And I think you can work for 14 hours, six days a week if you need to. But you don't need to right now."
By now I was sitting on his lap, our heads touching. "Aren't you resentful that I get so much down time and you don't?"
The pause lengthened. "No? Just no?"
"No," he said. "I'm not."
"Okay," I said, and kissed him, and went back to the couch.
We have had some version of this conversation over and over. Although I cannot shed my insecurity about it, I have learned that I don't like the American way of work. Forty hours per week is too much to ask of me, and I lose control of my mental health if I have to do it. I don't like spending most of my week with my co-workers, people I didn't choose. I have no ambition toward success and power and wealth. All I care about is enough - enough time, money, food, books to live without anxiety.
My job would love to have me for forty hours a week, but I won't do it. I would love to quit office work and write/homemake/teach full-time, but I can't do it. Where I live is the compromise, discovered after explosive nervous breakdowns, slow declines into suicidality, a bucolic three years of working at home, and finding that I feel wrong, lesser, if I depend wholly on my husband’s salary.
My part-time job adjusted around the years I spent attaining a master’s degree, which I finished in May of 2017. It flexed to accommodate me when I needed more money, and flexed the other way when I needed more time. I am fortunate. I used to be the breadwinner, and that responsibility got me out of bed with less complaint than I expend now, when I don’t really need the money. But I liked my life a hell of a lot less then than I do now.
The current compromise remains odd. Sticky. It’s un-American to resist a forty-hour work week as too long, too much to ask, when many people happily work sixty or eighty hours and fail to collapse. It makes me think I am weak, or that my self-discipline has a broken gear or a missing lever. Yet I feel, in an unyielding place inside myself, that it’s not me who’s defective. That the broken place is not within me, but within a system where sixty or eighty hours a week is praised, instead of treated with concern. Isn’t it obsessive to work so much? Isn’t overweening ambition a Shakespearean flaw? Must work exhaust the worker in order to be taken seriously?
Five years ago, Tim Kreider bylined a piece called “The Busy Trap” for the New York Times. I loved every word of it. Kreider expressed the idea that working from morning to midafternoon, and then freeing oneself to pursue art, administrative needs, exercise, and friendship for the remaining hours was “a sane and pleasant pace” for a workday. This stance, and the gentle, sensible way it was expressed, is my own.
I sent the article to my mother in an email. “I’ll read it just as soon as I have time,” she replied. “Work is crazy this week!”
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, the Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.