Clock in. Baby will be hungry soon. How much “work” can you get done before she wakes up?

As a graduate student, I have more freedom in my “day job” than most—certainly more freedom than those workers who are honored by the U.S. government this Labor Day.

Indeed, the work I do is not quite what the machinists, carpenters, and joiners had in mind when the holiday was instituted over 100 years ago to recognize the “social and economic achievements” of American workers.

When I am not teaching, my time is my own to structure as I will. What that means in practice, of course, is that I have no time that is not stretched between the poles of work and home, school and life (dissertation and lactation). I am always free, and I am never free.

Every day is like a working Saturday. And now that I have a baby, all work must happen between nursing sessions and during baby’s erratic naps, or I risk missing her alert, happy times.

One hour to go. You will have to pack up and head home; your morning “work session” will have come to a close. Time to put this article aside and allow your husband to get away for a while. He, too, needs a few productive hours, an opportunity to labor at something other than a diaper change.

A year ago, the public sphere was abuzz with responses to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s provocation in The Atlantic: “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” What was “it all,” we asked?

Wasn’t “work-life balance” a classist issue, relevant only to middle and upper-middle class women in the position to make choices about “work” and “life” in the first place? Nannies and ayahs in the employ of wealthy families in the United States and India were laboring and sacrificing, striving daily to care for privileged children at the expense of caring for their own families, and nobody thought about their “all.” Was it work if you didn’t get paid? And what about men?

Some women said they felt guilty about leaving their children in order to go to work. Others responded that going to work offered clear rewards and opportunities for personal growth, plus it was so much easier than being home with the kids. Damn if they were going to be saddled with the harder, thankless job of staying home. Then there were those who argued that taking care of children was itself a form of work and should be recognized, even compensated, as such. And those who critiqued the consumerist premise of the aspiration “to have.”

 “Are you getting any work done?” your advisor asks. “Working hard, or hardly working?” “When baby sleeps, you rest?” No—when baby sleeps, you work.

When I leave my daughter for a few hours of dissertation writing, I don’t feel guilty exactly (it helps that she is almost always with her father, whose schedule is just as flexible as mine). But I do have to come to grips with that awful, violent imperative to “make every minute count.” Would I feel more productive if I had an office to drive to and meetings to attend? Am I doing enough work?

Fifteen minutes to go. How much work have you done since you left the house? You need to cut baby’s nails today. You should be working. You ran out of the house without a shower. Even that unwashed feeling distracts you. You should be working harder. You left a bottle of milk in order to buy yourself a four-hour chunk of uninterrupted time, and yet thoughts of baby, of lunch, of waiting emails, interrupt your precarious attempts at productivity.

In The Problem with Work, feminist political theorist Kathi Weeks argues that two of the most common strategies for addressing the issue of work-life balance are flawed because of their uncritical overvaluation of “work.” These strategies are i) campaigns to re-value domestic labor as work equivalent to work outside the home in terms of its significance, productivity, and economic contribution; and ii) campaigns to create more opportunities for women to work outside the home. Both of these approaches to the “work-life balance” problem leave unchecked the assumption that “work” is the proper arena for the fulfillment of our potential and realization of our dreams, whether inside or outside the home.

In retrospect, that was the problem with many of the responses to Slaughter’s article. Too much about work, and too little about life. “Work” doesn’t capture what I do and what I feel, what I attempt and what I accomplish, whether I am putting pen to proverbial paper or cloth diaper to baby skin. Just as I find it disingenuous to call what I do with my baby “work”—feed her, read to her, change her diapers, encourage her excited articulations, watch her interact with her family, take her to the park to look at trees—I think “work” is a woefully limited way to describe what any one of us does day to day and in the course of a life.

Machinists and carpenters, nannies and ayahs, too, do so much more than “work.” They build and fashion, create and nurture, cherish, protect, and love.

What women need is not to have housework valued as equal to a “job,” nor is it the chance to do more work outside the home. What women need is less work. What we all need is less work and more time to be imaginative about who and what we want to be and do with our lives.

This Labor Day, we must demand opportunities to organize our lives and articulate our aspirations around something other than the achievement of work, whether for our families, bosses, or ourselves. We need a release from the injunction to be productive all the time, so that what today travels under the sign of “work” might one day be reborn under the promise of a fuller “life.”

Hear that? Your baby cries. Clock out.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkele

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