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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss Warmland.

Posts tagged capitalism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about unpaid labour and care work.

My experience with care work started when my mother was dying and I felt compelled- by myself, by my family, and by society in general, to prioritize my young life around caring for her. I used to go with her to chemo appointments, I’d sit with her in her bed and sing to her while she suffered, and I tried to pick up some of the things she’d done before she got sick. With help from my aunts and uncles, my dad and I became a care team. But I was only fourteen, and I didn’t have the capacity to balance that work with forming an identity outside of that. It was all consuming. I stopped playing music and doing theatre. I did well enough in school, but didn’t care to immerse myself fully in anything academically, even though I may have been inclined to. I held down a part time job and did well at it, but it wasn’t my focus. My whole life became care work.

When I fell desperately in love at only eighteen, I did what I had learned to do best: I cared for him. I worked hard to build a life where I’d be able to contribute enough financially and emotionally to support him while he lived his dreams of being a professional musician. I went to school and volunteered with a feminist organization and provided a lot of financial and emotional support for survivors of gender-based violence through fundraising and community outreach. When my friends were struggling with the stress of school or relationships or parents, I was the first one to drop everything I was doing to be there for them. When my partner wanted to move to a small, rural town where he’d grown up, I agreed. After all, I liked the idea of living in a small, artsy town. I liked the idea of building a life where we could raise a family, engage with our hobbies, and maintain humble but generally fulfilling careers.

When we moved, I quickly realized that my single undergraduate degree wasn’t going to get me far in the field I had dreamt of working in. It turns out, social work is a lot more about following government guidelines than actually actively caring for people. In this community, I fought my way into a grassroots charity organization where I attempted to use my creativity and advocacy experience in a way that met their mandate. I attempted this work for years, and when paid opportunities came up, they were never for me. I worked with a few counselling and direct support agencies for minimum wage with no benefits or support, but it wasn’t sustainable physically, emotionally, or financially. I managed a multi-million dollar company for a couple dollars over minimum wage for a few years until I requested some reasonable disability-related accommodations the company refused to meet. So I started working with another multi-million dollar company where I was paid less than what I’d been promised in the interview and was sexually harassed to the point where I no longer felt comfortable making the forty minute commute to be paid $16 an hour.

During this time, I volunteered in my community theatre company and volunteered at a radio station pushing boundaries with a show that addressed topics relating to discrimination, empowerment, recovery, and care. I initiated an annual rally against gender-based violence in my community. I advocated for equality at a municipal level and became a go-to outreach support person for women in my community. And all of this went unpaid.

As I make the transition to motherhood, which has, naturally, been an arduous process, I’m reflecting a lot on my priorities, on where I’m placing my energy, on where I’m at in my life and what this transition means for me in terms of my future. I’m realizing that my failed career paths come down to the fact that, in a world of Bell Let’s Talk days, the society I live in isn’t one that prioritizes active care.

We want to say, “I’m always here to talk with you”, but we rarely know how to practice the kind of active care or advocacy that is required to make a change in a person’s life, and when we do, that work isn’t sustainable under the rule of capitalism. That kind of work doesn’t lead to job opportunities, it doesn’t lead to being able to pay our rent or buy our groceries. It’s no surprise that mental health is poor for almost everyone or that we live in a culture that is deeply traumatized as a baseline. We’re all just trying to make it month to month, day by day.

As a pregnant, disabled woman, I’m in a position where my career won’t be prioritized the same way for quite some time. While I grow this human, while I give birth and attempt to heal my body, while I feed and raise my son, I know from my past experience mothering (because, let’s face it, I’ve been mothering since I was fourteen years old) and from the experiences of mothers around me: this will be all-consuming. So how do I meet the demands of capitalism as a woman who has dedicated her life to unpaid care work so far when I push that boundary further?

I feel burnt out. Maybe it’s the time of year (it’s fall, things are dying and the ever-changing air pressure is torturous for a person, like myself, living with fibromyalgia). Maybe it’s just the eb of the flow that is my mental health. Maybe it’s because of capitalism.

Yeah, that’s probably the one.

I’ve read a lot about how your worth is not determined by your level of productivity, but I’ve also always struggled with that as a kid who grew up in a household where productivity was number one. I grew up, like many others, believing that the Road to Success was to do well in school, go to university, get a degree, and work 40 hours/week. However, like many other millennials, I have found that, since graduating with my undergrad, I am lucky to get a job even remotely related to my field, let alone those nine-to-five hours I’ve always dreamt of. Going to grad school is an option (and, it seems, the only option if I want to work in the ‘helping industry’), but it’s an expensive option that dictates where my little family and I will live and work. Simply taking the amount of time off of my day job to complete and submit grad school applications is time-consuming (and expensive) enough, let alone actually attending grad school.

Anyway, the aspirations I had for my career in social work are fading, and I find myself, a person who has always focused on school/career/building a resume, a little lost.

I define my Self as an artist/activist. I am an interdisciplinary artist who paints abstract expressionist paintings and performs and, at times, holds a vision for various pieces of work. I am a writer (allegedly) who exposes pieces of myself for the sake of radical vulnerability (like I am now). Because I am an artist who believes that the most important part of art is the process, and that there is not beautiful and more meaningful process than that of the Self. I am an activist who strives for caring communities and healing and restorative justice.

But I have never believed that my art and/or my activism would be able to support me. And if I am not supporting myself, I find that I do not value myself. This is obviously problematic and rooted largely in trauma. Some personal trauma, and some trauma that reaches society-wide. For all the times that I have encouraged the people in my life to take some time to take care of themselves, I kind of suck at it.

Maybe that’s not fair to say. In some ways, I take good care of myself. I have learned that the key to managing my disabilities is to be intentional with the things I eat, the things I do, the amount I sleep, the way I do the things I do. It’s kind of hard to live by the seat of my pants. I promised myself that for the month of September I would prioritize having fun and doing the things I wanted to do rather than work or other things I felt like I ought to do. It was awesome, but It took me three weeks to recover physically. My body went into fibroshock mode and I was more or less useless for a while.

Now I’m trying to focus on creating art rather than my day job- which is  harder said than done. A significant portion of making art is, after all, drinking too much coffee and waiting for inspiration to strike. And there I face a paradigm: do I prioritize doing things that inspire me but also physically ruin me, or do I prioritize my Real Work and find that I am too self-deprecating to create anything at all.

I had high hopes that this time in my life would be dedicated to entering every open door to feel out where I fit in this world. Instead, I am finding that there are a lot of brick walls that don’t budge, no matter how hard I work to move them (or even climb them). Between my disabilities and my politics, it seems as though I am not a very “good fit” for much of anywhere, and between my obsession with productivity and my passion for exerting mass amounts of emotional labour that I don’t have the spoons for, I don’t feel like I make a very good artist/activist either.

And it comes back to capitalism. Measuring self-worth by my productivity, and also reconciling the fact that I need to make money in order to eat and live reasonably with the fact that the majority of the work I do (both professionally and personally, come to think of it) is emotional labour- feminized work that is not valued enough to compensate the person engaging in that labour.

I love taking care of my friends and community members, but this is a truly laborious process that I put a lot of time, effort, and skills into. It’s something that I attempt to fuze into both my art, and my activism. I know that I will have many opportunities to further my career/Work/whatever, and I know that I will not feel like this forever.

But in this moment, I feel burnt out. And I know I’m not the only one.