Why do we do it?

“I swear they’re out there”

–Sheryl Crow

Why do we do what we do? Why do we don our jewelry, paint our eyes, curl our hair, and straighten our hair? Why do we press our shirts, crease our pants, dimple our ties, shine our shoes, and prop hats on our heads?

This morning, I almost didn’t see 3B before leaving for work. I had gotten up too late, tired from staying up to watch the recorded News Hour election coverage after dinner, bath time, and catching up with Mama, who wisely went to bed early, after catching up with young master Potter.

And so I wolfed breakfast. I sipped scalding coffee. Turned off all the lights to protect Mama and 3B’s waking eyes. I dragged a brush across my teeth and a soapy rag over my tired bones. I leashed up Barky. We cut through morning traffic to get to dog school. I weaved my way back across town to home. I sprinted up the hill to the bus stop, where I stood panting in the slicing cold, feeling my heartbeat pounding in my neck and head. And here I am now, on the bus, wedged against the wall with my book and bag, hemmed in by a woman studying cardiology in a large white binder.

In the midst of these ablutions and chores, between leashing up the dog and weaving through traffic, 3B woke up. Often I won’t see him even if he wakes before I leave because he’s busy with his bottle and slowly opening his eyes to the light of day. Honestly, it’s sometimes a choice of mine, because the five minutes I spend with him in the morning might cause me to miss my bus, have to take the Metro, get to work late, and then I would come home late and mostly miss seeing him in the evening as well.

But this morning, after he called for me, as he usually does when Mama gets him from his crib, he then said, “Dada. Hiiiiiiiiiii.” That’s his way of saying that he really wants to say “hi” to me, so Mama brought him out to the front door, where I was slipping Barky’s new collar over his head.

As I watched Mama holding 3B, who was pressing the back of his hand into one eye and squinting his other one against the pale light of morning, she told me what he’d said. 3B then looked straight at me, held out his arms toward me and said, “Dada. Hug.”

I held 3B’s warmth against me and felt his entire body go limp after he lay his arms across my shoulders and around my neck. He turned his head to the side and laid it on the front of my shoulder as I rubbed his back through his fuzzy footie pajamas and told him that I love him. We stood like that for what seemed like an hour, and it was the best minute of my entire day.

Then 3B pushed back, pointed at the front door and said, “Work.”

“Yes, I have to go to work.”

And then pointed at the lightswitch, “On. On.” ending that tender moment.

I told him that Mama would let him play with the light switch and handed him off to her, then walked out with Barky heeling along as he’s quite happy to do after two weeks at school.

As I made my morning rounds, I wondered again why we do all of these things, perform all of these tiny tasks that amount to little when viewed in isolation from one another. I thought of the long conversation I had over and after brunch this weekend with the Peace Corps CD for Tanzania, who came over with his wife, an long time friend of Mama’s.

He and I both work at organizations that do work we’re proud of, work that helps others, work that helps large numbers of people–beyond those who are directly employed and served by our organizations; and yet, both of us were asking, “Why do we work? Why do we work so hard?” We both have come to the conclusion that while doing good work is an important bonus, the bottom line is the bottom line–we work to get paid, because it’s money that allows us to do what it is that we truly want to do, like visit cows, ride on tractors, throw stones in streams, and run through pastures.

All of this made this morning’s poem in the Writer’s Almanac resonate that much more with me.

“I close my eyes like a good little boy at night in bed,
as I was told to do by my mother when she lived,
and before bed I brush my teeth and slip on my pajamas,
as I was told, and look forward to tomorrow.”

So, how about it, faithful six readers–how do you spend your days? Why do you do it? And, if you knew you were going to live forever, what would you do every day?

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  • Come on, Papa B. Here I thought I was getting a wonderful, sappy commentary on how beautiful it is to be the dad of such a sweet little boy, and how tenderly your heart aches to leave him in the morning.

    Then you slam me with a Big Life Question.

    Right now I work for various reasons. It pays for daycare, so that the kids can groove with some other kids and learn those all-important social skills instead of hanging out at home watching me get crabbier and crabbier. I get personal satisfaction out of my specific line of work, in that it seems to be perfect for my temperament, education, and skills.

    I feel like my work does contribute in a small way to the wider world, even if only 30-40 grad students ever read that book I copy edited on fin-de-siecle German art history. Maybe a few more will read the book I proofread about cholesterol and fat consumption, I don’t know. Maybe it’s all because I’m an inveterate nitpicker and can’t stand to think that spelling errors exist anywhere in the world!

    Then there’s the (unpaid) work I do at home: the dishes, the laundry, the cooking. I try to work hard at that, and even more importantly I try to love doing it. That’s a hard task, I tell you, but I think it’s soul-shriveling to look on what you do as unimportant and unenjoyable. Some days, after I’ve just done a sinkful of dishes, cooked dinner, and then turn around to see another sinkful of dishes, I despair over it. But it’s important work for my family.

    I’m not sure I can imagine living forever.

  • Today, I spent mine doing taxes. Most days, I play catch up from what I missed yesterday. Of course, my days of fascination with flipping light switches are over. Today I had to squelsh the whine about wanting a remote control airplane. NOW! And cookies, NOW! And candy, NOW!

    I do it because I love my children, and I hope they will learn from my example that it is not necessary to have what everyone else has, or even everything you see. It is possible to still have a good time. I am instilling values minute by minute, one child at a time. Maybe they will get it while I am around to notice, or not, but I did my part. Someday they will get it, and remember me.

  • Henitsirk: Yeah, that unpaid work is interesting. I remember who it’s for, which gets me to do it, but I still call them chores. The price of love isn’t cheap, but it’s worth paying.

    CAGirl: They get it, and they get it NOW! They just don’t want to let you know; they’re all, like, too cool for that, mom. I know your kids, and they have learned from your example, and from my brother-in-law’s example, and become wonderful people, who I love to spend time with, as a result.

  • I do it because they give me coffee.

  • MrJ: We must be related.

  • Er…well, it’s hardly my everything, but if i don’t paint or draw on a semi-regular basis i slowly go mad. The same happens if i’m too sedentary. Other than that who knows? The joy of being a constant contradiction maybe?

  • I spend my days working at a desk, stressing out constantly over the fact that I run my own business.

    Do I absolutely love it? Not at all. It provides little in the way of personal fulfillment. However, I’ve reconciled myself with it because my job allows me to strike a great balance between spending a lot of time with my family but also being able to provide for them. And that’s important to me.

    Sure, if I had my way, I’d love to be a high-school history teacher, an adult illiteracy teachers, a ski instructor in British Columbia, or a travel journalist exploring the world.

    But you know what? At the end of the day, it’s much more important to me (and much more fulfilling) to be able to leave work every day at 4:00, pick my daughter up from school, and spend the afternoon playing with her or reading books together or going on field trips to the museum.

    It makes me sad to hear from so many parents that they never get to see their child during the week. For me, time is the most important thing in the world. What’s more valuable than that?

  • Why do I do it…. well I have two jobs and they both pay well, just not in dollars.

    I volunteer at school to help the teachers who have the responsiblilty to shape young minds. I do my little part helping them prepare for their lessons, so they might just have some free time for themselves later in the day. This one pays heavily in appreciation. I also get a chance to socialize with adults. It keeps me busy and it is something I can do.

    I do my other job as mother because those kids are my future. I may not live forever but who knows, maybe they will and they need to put a positive mark on the world. I was very near tears with your touching account of 3B needing to love you in the morning, and then the realization that he gets it. Now leave for work. At least you had that warm shoulder and his love to carry you there. I am blessed that I have been able to be there for my kids, and now as they are getting older, I have a relationship with each of them. I think sometimes their friends are jealous of what we have together and they want a piece of it. It took me years to create it. Other adults are impressed that my kids would talk to me and actually want to spend time with me. We make it fun and meaningful. I think that about tells you what I get paid for my first job.

    I tend to find things to do that need to be done. I feel it is more worth my while then. There are some things I would rather not do, but I am helping someone else by doing it. It makes me feel better about myself. My favorite pay is appreciation…. and love is good too.

  • I love that leaned in feeling w/ Gage’s head on my shoulder….

    I love it when he wraps his arms around my thigh & hugs my leg as I rinse dishes….

    I love how he plays with my hair sometimes as I rock him in his nursery and we talk about the day or sing…

    But….those holy terror moments wear me down.
    The whining and fit throwing wears me down.
    I need my job. I need my work. It makes me feel (1) a sense of productivity, [not that I don’t get that at home or in rasing Gage…], (2) like I have not lost my mind without adult interaction, & (3) like I make a difference in the lives of strangers.
    I help people every day that I go to work. People who would otherwise be strangers to me. Helping them with situations & problems….makes me feel like I’m leaving the world a better place.

    …and besides…I only work 3 days a week, so it’s more like…a career & a hobby!