In one of her letters to me, my mother stated as an all-around excuse for her behavior, “I’m sorry, but I had to work!” The alcoholism, incest, neglect, emotional abuse, and violence was thus excused away and even caused by her need to maintain employment. But most people have to work, yet are not driven to quite her level of insanity and child abuse. Of course, I had never suggested that I wished she could have been a housewife; I had no real conception of what that could have meant in the first place, and so that was not on my list of complaints. Clearly, despite her fantastical thinking, she would still have had these issues and still abused us had she been able to stay at home throughout my whole childhood on my father’s salary. And not being home didn’t necessitate or justify leaving me alone with my abusive brother all the time either. The truth is that yet again, she was not really listening to me, but just using our encounter as a vehicle through which to vent her own issues.
Mother liked to blame her jobs for all sorts of stress and malaise, and while there are toxic workplaces in the world, the fact is that she made a point of becoming the center of drama and conflict wherever her professional life took her. When she came home at 5 o’clock, she was often on the verge of boiling of over. She would make us listen to long, profane accounts of how much she hated her coworkers and how they were all scheming against her. She would gossip about them as she un-clicked beer can after beer can. But my mother complained to me in private about how bored she was listening to my father’s stories from his workday, which didn’t include yelling at anyone, swearing, drama, or agitation. At the end of many of these accounts, she would say to me, “just wait until you work, you’ll see.”
For someone who projected such a toxic perspective about work onto me and intentionally set me up to fail in so many ways, my mother was nonetheless very judgmental when it came to my working. She strongly resented, harassed, and disrespected me when I chose to home-school grades 11 and 12 so that I could graduate on time, and when I told her I needed to take a semester of from college so that I could get treatment for my eating disorder. My mother would scoff at me, and repeat the phrase “he never worked a day in his life,” which is ridiculous and false. Writing that entire novel of mine that she read was work, getting a 4.0 in my first year at college was work; quite aside from the fact that I did indeed have short-term jobs when I was younger shoveling snow and that I designed a few websites for pay when I was 19, I certainly did toil. Just because she spent every single second of her own time that wasn’t being assigned/controlled by someone else mindlessly staring at a television doesn’t mean that I was incapable of being productive on my own.
When I would try to get her to understand how impossible my eating disorder and anxiety had become, she refused to listen and instead said that “everyone in my family started working at 14 years old.” It isn’t clear who was supposed to be included in the statement “my family”–she only had one sibling growing up, and my older brother started his professional life by selling drugs and shoplifting; but o.k, I wasn’t a part of some family portrait she had in her mind. I don’t believe in fetishizing hardship and poverty, I don’t think fourteen year old’s should have to work for money, and certainly not when there is no valid reason to do so other then repeating an unexamined pattern. Everyone in her family also sexually abused children, and I wasn’t interested in doing that either. But the pattern was clear; she allowed herself easy, simple excuses, while every action and inability of mine was completely inexcusable.
For many reasons, it was on the other side of the country that I entered the workforce, though unfortunately in the same city where my older sister lived. When I told her that I had been hired at an upscale boutique as a gift wrapper/stock person she laughed at me, exclaiming “Why would they pick you? You’re so bad at giftwrapping!” The wrapping at this store was very intricate, elegant, and individualized and yet I learned how to do it and earned the praise and esteem of my employers and customers. They told me that I had a real artistic talent and fine visual sense, and should use it. This really shook me up; it was jarring hearing what they said, and then talking to my sister on the phone, who continued to express shock at my not being fired and said “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The fact is, at home my mother and sister never let me wrap gifts; I suppose they allowed me to try it once when I was seven years old, and then quickly stole the packages away from me to do it themselves, and label me as ‘bad’ at it. I remember even at 18, my mother would pull things out of my hands I was wrapping so she could do it “correctly.” They had no interest in teaching me which corners to tape, let alone letting me put my own artistic sensibility into it. In any case though, despite my mother’s ridiculous horror stories, I found my coworkers were really nice people who gradually raised my self-esteem to the point where I started to see myself as valuable, and looked around at the people still in my life and began to question their presence. Looking back now, I see that despite my sister sharing my mother’s moralistic judgments about work, she had made derisive comments about my abilities for almost every single job that I told her applied for.
Around this time, I heard that my brother was homeless, living on the streets in some city in the south. I heard it from my sister, because she was spending a great deal of time on the phone trying to convince our mother not to do anything to help him, but in her words, “let him figure it out on his own.” Yet when you have been homeless for over seven months, there is nothing to “figure out” anymore, unless someone provides assistance, the problem becomes chronic. My sister had never been homeless herself, and had absolutely no compassion for anyone who was, but just moral judgment. Justifiably, I hated my brother, but I wouldn’t have been so petty and intrusive to actually try to convince our mother to let him rot on the streets, especially since I lived nowhere near her and wouldn’t be affected by her letting him move back in. Why should she care?
I remembered hearing someone while I was at work talking about how she told her son that she accepted his trying to make a living as an artist, and that he would always have a place to stay in her house if he needed it. It gave me insight into just how toxic our family was–that my sister would pretend to be nice and put on this social facade with family members who she didn’t actually care about or respect, and then maliciously gossip and scheme against them behind their backs. I realized she was likely to do the same to me (and she later did!), and that she was still putting me down in every single conversation we had. My sister never did get a chance to see my gift-wrapping; we didn’t spend Christmas together that year, or any day ever again.
I have never and will never adopt the morality about “work” that my sister and mother have. I know that in some countries, governments have made steps to remunerate both students and housewives for the work that they do, which is recognized as a valuable contribution to society in an of itself and not something that needs to be offset by forcing people to take on low-skill jobs simultaneously. I’m interested in cooperative workplaces, where all employees are given a living wage and the environment is democratic and non-hierarchical. The sort of situation my mother would run screaming from, as she loved to condescend and put herself above younger people at her jobs as well as in our family.