Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Family Economy

I'm fortunate enough to have Labor Day off, which gives me time both to rest up after a week of business travel and put in some much needed last minute work on preparing the older kids' homeschool plans for the next few weeks. (One of the advantages of homeschooling is that within certain limits one sets the rules, and one of ours is that school doesn't start until September, with the day after Labor Day serving as the first day of school.) That also gave me the unusual chance to go to mass alone with MrsDarwin, slipping off to weekday mass in the morning, and to think a bit about what work means in the context of our household.

For a number of years now I've worked in the American corporate world. These kind of jobs are often idealized. I've heard earnest MBAs tell me how this is the kind of work that they've always wanted to do and that they're inspired to be "part of the team". And while people sometimes put in long hours or spend a lot of nights away from family while doing business travel, they do it in comfortable hotels, doing work that doesn't leave you physically aching at the end of the day. Sure, meetings and bureaucracy can be tiresome, especially if one doesn't learn how to navigate them, but in general it's mentally engaging work, and it's work that society tends to treat you as respectable for doing. And it pays well. So in just about every significant way, it's a good deal. I'm very fortunate in those respects.

And yet, it often throws me when coworkers tell me that they'd probably do this work whether they needed the money or not, because they need the sense of purpose and the mental challenge. I particularly hear this from female coworkers when they learn that MrsDarwin raises and teaches the kids at home full time. "God bless her. I couldn't stand to do that. I need to get out of the house and away from the kids and do something important and challenging or I'd go nuts."

I'm not here to tell people how to organize their families. Ten years ago when I thought I had a lot more figured out in life, this would have been a piece on the importance on the single income family and one parent devoting himself or herself to raising the kids full time. But from the older me, my point is more general: work has a purpose in our lives, and that purpose is to provide us with the necessities of life and if possible some reasonable amount of comforts as well.

If I didn't have to pay our family's bills, I would not be spending all those hours every week sitting in an office. I like my job, it's interesting and fulfilling as jobs go, but it's not my purpose in life.

When God described to Adam and Eve the fallen world in which they would have to make their way among the consequences of original sin, he told them that a living would now come at the cost of the sweat of the brow. We labor for our food, our shelter, our clothing, and our possessions. We labor to take care of the young, the old, and ourselves. We labor directly, preparing their food, changing their diapers, cleaning their messes. We labor indirectly, earning the money that will allow us to compensate others in return for the goods and service they give us which we in turn need.

In some sense, all the work we do is to give someone the things they need or want.

This can be very direct, as when I change the two-year-old's diaper. Or it can be very indirect, as when I work with the our segment manager for rotary cutters to come up with a pricing model which allows our company to charge a manufacturing plant a per-cut price rather than a several-hundred-thousand-dollar capital investment for a carbide-edged cutting roller machine which in turn is used to cut out diapers on a high speed production line, which allows someone to buy a box of inexpensive disposable diapers in a supermarket, which allows them to change their baby's diaper -- and my part in all of that allows me to earn the money to buy a package of diapers for my own offspring. In the end, whether I'm working in the office or around the house, my purpose is the same: to provide for the needs of myself and others. There are things I do for the enjoyment of them -- writing here among other things -- but going to the office is not among them.

Too often, I think, in our work-obsessed middle class culture, we think of a job (a compensated "professional" job) as inherently ennobling. Those who work directly to care for those who depend on us are seen as somehow not doing "real work". Yes, we nod and call them selfless, but in some sense it's often implied that what's selfless about their caring work is that they've chosen to do something less important, less rewarding, less worth while because someone has to do it. They've drawn the short straw and accepted their lot cheerfully.

But I think we should think of work in a more basic fashion. Work is how we provide for the needs of others. The work we do around the house provides the necessities and comforts for our families. The work we do "on the job" earns the money which allows us to pay others for the things we need -- and for them to acquire the things they need in their turn. Even the creative work which I might otherwise think of as recreation (for me, at least) such as working on the community theater production or writing this post, is intended at root to provide others with the relaxation, the insight, the enjoyment which they need. To speak of the economy is to speak of the unimaginably complex network of interactions through which millions of people make these exchanges with each other. This can ennoble seemingly tedious work, but it also cuts seemingly noble work down to size. At root, we work to provide for the needs of others, whether we work for money or just to get something done. And so within the family, where we need both money and the direct care of others (and need to decide at times whether in some cases we will provide direct care or pay someone else to do it for us) we should do so with not some over-reverence for paid work, but with an eye towards providing the best case as best we can for all involved.


Banshee said...

Well, yeah. Obviously work is what people do to live, and it's nice to have fulfilling work; but if work was more important and interesting than family, why would a person bother to have a family? Family isn't an accessory to life; it's life.

Agnes said...

This reminded me of something my father used to say when I was a teenager and was about to choose my path. He said it was a great blessing if someone was able to earn the necessary money in a job one can enjoy, find fulfilment in and can consider a calling. I followed his advice when I chose to go to medical school and became a doctor. But having been able to stay at home for 7 years while my children were young, I can see both sides of the coin.
First of all, both types of occupation can become stifling and close to burnout - and both types can be meaningful and fulfilling.
On the other hand, you are right to point out that the sort of ofice work you describe is not often really stimulating, challenging, purposeful etc - and it's the expected thing to say it is. Why, even in the medical profession it is a rare occasion when one can experience "having saved a life" or "cured a patient". My family life keeps showing me the perspective that a doctor at the sickbed is exchangeable - a mother to her child isn't.