Veronica Grace can’t understand how the man she loves only sees his value in terms of a traditional, successful job.
I was laid off from my job a few months ago. I knew I would be worried about money and finding a new job. What I didn’t know is that I would experience a deep sense of having lost my value. I have never consciously seen money and job success as a measure of the value of a person, so I was shocked when I realized that I was feeling the loss of my job as a loss of my value.
NBC News Investigations recently did a story on Goodwill Industries and how they make use of Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act in order to pay disabled workers based on their ‘abilities’ with no lower wage limit. Let me say that again, there is NO bottom limit to how little they can pay these disabled workers. The lowest wage found by NBC News was 22 cents an hour. There are inmates in federal prison who make almost twice that.
I find that fairly horrifying but what was more astounding is that they pay so many of their regional managers over $400,000 a year, and at least one of them over a million dollars a year. They determine how much they will pay the disabled workers by a system where every six months a ‘regular’ employee stands behind them with a stopwatch and times how quickly they hang clothing. What I want to know is how do they determine that the million dollar employees are worth a million dollars. What measurement system comes up with the answer that says the least vulnerable employee making far more than they need is worth more than all of the most vulnerable employees making far below a living wage.
Clearly how a business like Goodwill determines a person’s value is beyond my comprehension, but what about myself and the people closest to me?
When I realized I was feeling less valuable, I put quite a bit of thought into why. I realized I was feeling less because I perceived myself to be doing less for my family and my community. I began focusing on spending extra time on my family. I began volunteering for a local non-profit agency and committing to do more for my spiritual communities. I still worry about my monetary contribution to my family but it’s not so personal anymore. I don’t feel like I have no value because my time and effort are my most valuable offerings to the people I care for. Putting in that time and effort brings me a feeling of worth disconnected from the financial value placed on my contributions.
This was not the case for my husband. About 6 years ago, not long after we got married, my husband was laid off from his job. The whole area was hit extremely hard by the housing crisis and the economy was completely tanked. He couldn’t find work for 18 months, and during that time I worked full time while he took my sons to school and cared for them when they were home. He moved us to a new home, did extensive repairs on that new home. He started a personal business and rarely ever had a day off. No matter how much he did, he felt like he was failing us because he wasn’t bringing in a ‘regular’ pay check.
I pointed out that he was working extremely hard, with less down time than when he had been working. I pointed out that because he had a long and successful employment history we were getting the best possible unemployment benefits and he had an excellent chance of finding another good job. I pointed out that, while we lost the home he had owned, the boys were now in a much better school. I told him I appreciated him, I told him I loved having him home. I explained that if I had my wish I would love for him to stay home as long as he wanted. I told him I wasn’t sure how we could have made it through that time with both of us working and so much to do. None of it sunk in deeply enough.
My husband is not all that stereotypically male. He’s a sweet shy genius type with a wicked sense of humor. He definitely has his ‘Tim the Toolman’ moments but he never seemed that into being The Man. That is one of the things that attracted me to him, that is one of the reasons I wanted to build a life with him. That is why it was a surprise to me when he felt shame for not being able to support his family in that traditional way. That is why I was even more surprised when no amount of logical examination would vanish this shame.
Fast forward to now, I’m the one who is not working but this idea that his value lies in supporting his family through his job is hitting him again! He is now ashamed that I have to worry about having a job. This reaction is not as overpowering as the one to his own unemployment, but it still strikes me as extremely unfair that society has taught him such unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a husband and father.
I don’t know how the people working for Goodwill making $2 or 22 cents an hour feel about their value. I do know that how much our work is valued as indicated by our paycheck has a huge impact on many people’s sense of worth.
We need to find a way to instill a powerful sense of realistic responsibility in all of us around hard work and caring for our families. This sense of responsibility can not be enforced through shame. Shame makes people feel hopeless and unequal to the task, it works against the very thing it is trying to enforce. We need to value dedication to family, not crush people with impossible generic standards of what that means.
photo by seabamirum / flickr