When Labor Day comes around, I usually think of my parents, Charles and Theresa Valente. They did the kind of back-breaking work that is labor. My father drove a truck, loading and unloading 10-gallon barrels of roofers’ asphalt. My mother stood on a wet floor for eight hours a day, hosing down cucumbers in a food factory.
I determined early on that this would not be my work. Still, my parents bequeathed to me a hardy work ethic. They rarely missed a work day and gave their jobs their best. My father willingly complied when his employer, whom he considered a friend, called him in on Saturdays even though he wouldn’t be paid overtime (no union representation!).
My work ethic soon turned into that particularly American disease, workaholism. For many years I placed work ahead of my personal needs. My life became out of balance.
Once, when I worked for The Wall Street Journal, I purchased tickets to see the famous ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. There was breaking news on my beat and I turned in my tickets to work on the story. I bought tickets for the following day’s performance, but then work intervened again. I never got to see Nureyev dance. He died a year later.
I often tell that story when I speak to students about creating a work-life balance.
Another experience a few years later helped me put into perspective what really matters. When I missed a work-related meeting because a doctor’s appointment for my husband ran long, the news director at the radio station where I worked at the time called me into his office and chewed me out. I realized in that moment I would never regret having missed that meeting. I would regret not being with my husband when he needed me.
We live in a culture of workaholics. A study a few years ago found that only 19 percent of Americans take their full allotment of vacation time. Our American vacations fall far short of the four weeks of paid summer vacation plus one week at Christmastime that Europeans receive.
During the pandemic many of us were forced to stop working. Those who worked from home had to learn how to balance work time with family and personal time. Perhaps one of the side benefits of the pandemic is to help us realize that work is only a part of our lives. Work doesn’t have to be the most important part for us to be successful or a good employee. The world doesn’t fall apart if we aren’t constantly on call.
Similarly, the pandemic underscored the dignity of many forms of work. We discovered a new appreciation for our grocery clerks, mail carriers, delivery people, restaurant workers, farmers, food factory workers, nurses, doctors, hospital orderlies and many others whose labor we previously might have taken for granted.
In his 6th century “Rule” for monastic living, St. Benedict divided each day equally between work, study and leisure time. In some ways, St. Benedict was an early organizational and management genius.
Author Heather Schuck writes wisely in her book, “The Working Mom Manifesto:” You will never feel truly satisfied by work until you are satisfied by life.
The Book of Ecclesiastes also offers this healthy persepctive:
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together …
This Labor Day, can we reflect on how well we balance our work duties with the rest of our lives? How do we divide our days between work, study and leisure? Do we take advantage of our days off? Can we offer our thanks to those whose labor makes our lives easier and more fulfilling?