One of the things that made burnout so hard to manage was that it surprised me, because you see, I’ve been sick my whole life. I’ve been sick my whole life and I’ve worked my whole life and I had a rough childhood and I had made it through all of that and through Stanford, so why was I suddenly hitting a wall? It didn’t make sense, because nothing had really changed in that time. My condition didn’t get worse, it flared and unflared like it always had. I was very sickly as a kid and yet I made it through Stanford without too much trouble, so I didn’t understand how I could be failing so badly physically at something I was so good at.
I saw it as my failing. I wasn’t the only one. People accused me of giving up as I was still in a wheel chair. We had convinced ourselves that I was invincible.
I may criticize Stanford a lot, but I’m a good Stanford kid. I believe in a meritocracy, the importance of hard work and contributing through my work to society. I pulled 60 hour weeks in high school to get there. I’d willingly sacrifice my body for my work, just like all the other kids around me. Because you see, that’s the secret to Stanford, these are kids who have been molded and encouraged to work like machines. Some of them have much faster processors than other people, but the thing they all have in common is that they will put their work ethic up against robots.
At the time, it was hard for me to see myself as part of a greater trend, we all suffered in silence. But the truth of the matter is, as public as my story may have been, I certainly wasn’t alone or the only one. Every time I see someone from my college years, I hear a similar story. They entered the workforce and found it unsustainable. Break downs are near universal.
And this makes you wonder what is so toxic about our work environments that our human robots are getting chewed up and spit out? But we never ask this question because we think the burn out is personal and that we are alone and that we have failed, precisely because the same society that gave us so much also molded us to believe that if we struggle we are the ones who are broken.
I think back to all the ways I was punished when I tried to set boundaries on my work. All those times that I was rewarded, praised, showered with affection for the hell I put myself through. I think about all the times I probably should have been pulled out and wasn’t because people didn’t think I could ever need that, because I am invincible, which is the same thing as saying I am not human.
People mistake my competence for confidence all the time. And it seems like a really silly thing to complain about, “people think I’m too smart/strong to fail” but it has caused the single most brutal series of destruction to me personally of all the isms I have to deal with. It was this belief that led my master’s program director to accuse me of faking illnesses because I was doing so well in class, which led to me shutting up for the rest of the year about my suffering. It was this belief that led people to push me back into the classroom too soon after trauma. It was this belief that led me to leave the classroom in a wheelchair.
It was ironic, sitting there in my master’s program classes and listening to them repeat over and over again how “you didn’t need to worry about your high enders” because academic success negated everything. It’s that same belief that made it such that my teachers ignored the obvious signs that I was being abused as a child, and it was the same belief that led Stanford to abuse me in my master’s program through gaslighting, silencing, and emotional abuse. People stood and watched me be oppressed because I was “good” at dealing with it.
Except I wasn’t “good” at dealing with it. What I was good at was burying my emotions so deep that instead of feeling them like a normal person they started to wreck actual havoc on my physical body. But who cares? Pain isn’t real right? I can psychologically overcome any pain right?
But the pain was a warning signal, it was trying to tell me that I was literally tearing the fibers of my body apart. Do you know how many awards I’ve gotten for ignoring that pain? For literally tearing myself apart?
We didn’t burn out, we were abused. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve been in activist circles my whole life in some capacity or another, so it continuously frustrates me when we don’t acknowledge the unpaid and often female dominated labor involved in the struggle. We hold up and praise those who have participated in more public ways but not only do we not acknowledge the other contributions behind the scenes, we also shame women who participate in traditionally feminine ways.
I was a pretty fragile and sickly kid. There are four of us total. I’m not saying we didn’t get some problematic messaging but my mom makes more than my stepdad and chores were assigned based on interest and ability and not gender (my older sister is like so much stronger than I could ever hope to be). Given that I was so unhealthy all the time, I ended up with what you might call the more traditional tasks like cooking, light housework and childcare. My older sister however, being much healthier than I, often had to do the heavier chores. The end result of this is that I’m a pretty femme looking girl with a pretty femme set of skills that I’m supposed to think is worth less than my masculine skill-set. I like to cook, so does my brother in law, guess which one of us gets feminist lectures about cooking?
There is so much work that has to be done in the struggle. So much work that goes unacknowledged. As an actvist and member of my community I have done all of the following without payment or acknowledgement
- provided childcare
- fed people
- emotional support
- editing writing or otherwise supporting other people’s projects
- crisis intervention
- caretaking of the ill
I really hate that I had to put together this list, because in my worldview, it is wrong to take on these tasks and then expect acknowledgement. You don’t get gold stars in my universe for doing the right thing, you just do it. So I’m listing this for a very specific reason, which is to remind all of you that the movements aren’t just built by powerful speakers. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took a year to plan, a year in which the women of the community got together and organized and made sure everyone’s needs were taken care of. The fact that we value MLK more than those women is a byproduct of sexism and the patriarchy.
If you’ve bought into the idea that the only way to be a feminist is to behave like men, you are discounting the importance of female labor. That labor has been absolutely necessary for our species to survive. I personally don’t care who does those jobs, but I will say that if men were doing them we’d treat them with a lot more respect instead of condemning the women who have taken them up. We forget that the women, like say Sheryl Sandberg, who have been successful in traditionally masculine ways got there the same way the men do, which is that they had a underpaid or unpaid feminine workforce behind them that allows them to pursue their goals in the public sphere. So if you call yourself a feminist while looking down on the women that it make possible for you to have a career, then you then you are the one who needs to be educated.
I learned the hard way from previous generations and my own burnout, that because my disability, I can’t have it all. I have very limited energy reserves and I participate where I can. I haven’t exactly gotten past the burnout stage and into the
“thinking about my next move” stage of this process, but I know when I do, I will have to make some hard choices. I know this because I’ve watched all my other girlfriends have to do it and they ultimately made the choice that was right for their family, whatever that choice may have been. There are ways though that you could work to free up more women.
- Acknowledge that feminine labor is real, difficult work and then pay them like you mean it
- Provide a universal basic income that acknowledges that the work stay at home mom’s and dad’s do is valuable and real. This also allows poor men and women to pursue artistic and intellectual interests that they might not otherwise be able to do
- Stop being judge-y about how other women manage these competing interests, if you would praise a stay-at-home dad while calling a mom who doesn’t work lazy, you are the one with the feminism problem
- Find ways in your communities and organizations to acknowledge behind-the-scenes work that has been traditionally done by women
- PARENTAL LEAVE. Like seriously, we are one of two countries that doesn’t have this. It’s almost more embarrassing than Trump.
My feminine labor has been absolutely essential to the movements I’ve been part of, and I don’t need thanks for it. What I do need, though, is for us to come together as a community and fight for policies that will support and reward the work women have been doing to keep our species alive.