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When "Having it All" Means Working Over the Holidays

Lizzy Shramko

When people ask me what I do at parties (not that I really go to the types of parties where people ask that question), my first response is not “managing the social media pages of the organization I work for.” No. I am a writer. I like to DJ, read, cook, and I love riding my bike. I am also a closeted academic and read queer theory when I can get a good chunk of time to sit in front of a book and parse through the latest academic buzzwords. The tasks that I complete during time paid for by someone else can’t even begin to encapsulate the many interests and passions I have.

Yes, there are some super lucky people in the world who love the work they are financially compensated for (or suspiciously claim they do on Facebook), but for many of us a day or night job is just that—tasks you do during the day or night.  

More often than not, the hours that you spend doing stuff you get paid for do not represent your interests in their entirety.

This is why designated, paid time off for people is so important—and not for the reasons many people think.

If you have a full-time job, often times your responsibilities do not neatly fit in your workday. This translates to working on projects at 9:00 p.m. when you were supposed to be off at 5:00 p.m., or going in to work a shift at 8:00 a.m. and leaving at 8:00 p.m., or just spending time outside of work thinking about tasks you have to do at work. Even if you work under 40 hours a week these things are often expected—without the benefits.

The paradox of full-time work is that outside the 40 hour work week you are often expected to respond to emails or deal with “emergencies” as they rise. If you don’t have a full-time job, you lack the benefits that make it possible to feasibly have consecutive time off in the first place.

But paid time away from your job plays a vital role in cultivating the other work in life.

This is true for all people, not just “creative people”—whatever that means. Whether it is composing a remake of the Game of Thrones theme song using a cat on vocals or making time to paint landscapes or taking on the task of turning your bike into a fixie, these things take time, concentration, and valuable brain space that can be filled to the brim with tasks and projects from your paid work. Also, not to get all sentimental, but these things are the things that make a person who they are.

For me a full-time job is a different kind of burden.

I belong to a gender that has been historically and continually paid less than my male peers. 

I won’t receive the same benefits or be able to take similar amounts of time off (and I have the privileges that go along with being a college educated white woman, so there is no telling how others experience that). If I decided to quit my job to write full time it would be harder for me to find a publishing house that would publish my work, or a publication that would use stories with my byline. These are realities I, and many other people, face when making choices about work, life, and writing.

So after years of underemployment, now that I am a full-time employee with benefits, I take advantage of paid holidays to do actual work. I write. I take photos. I make lists. I research conferences and gatherings across the country. I strategize about stories I want to pitch to publications. It takes time to craft meaningful pieces, to factor in relevancy in a 24-hour news cycle, and to think about what artistic integrity means to you. During paid holidays I have an opportunity to shut off my working self and I have time to put energy into my writing. 

I don’t take Christmas vacation as an opportunity to engage in Christmas activities. I don’t spend time with my extended family, because they all live on the East Coast and I prefer to maintain my sanity and not travel during one of the busiest and most expensive times of the year. I don’t have kids, and at this rate I’m not sure I’m ever going to. There are many conversations about women “having it all” that have focused on one type of work outside of paid workraising a family.

For me “having it all” means having both the financial compensation/stability that goes along with full-time work and the time to create meaningful work outside of a paid job. Or better, being paid for work you create. This should be true whether you create novels or babies.

As a non-paid writer (I think I’ve made a total of $138.97 over my eight-year writing career), I don’t do it for the money (but I would if you paid me). Writing helps me process things, and as a young woman who identifies as a feminist, let’s just say there is a lot to process. The types of books that top the New York Times bestseller do not contain characters or points of view that reflect the complicated world I live in. Even independent publishing houses are dominated by a pervasive white masculinity that claims “objectivity.” This is why having days to spend 10 hours thinking through, imagining, and writing is so vital for me. There is a lot to process on the pathway to creation. Luckily I have role models that help me along the way.

My mom, doing what she does best.

I grew up in an unconventional household where my mother, Greta Huttanus, was a writer and poet. While she was paid to work at a bookstore (and not paid to work as a mother), she spent the few down hours she had writing. I understood at a young age that sitting on the couch surrounded by thick books and seemingly unrelated sheets of paper meant “research.” I also understood that writing took time—lots of time.

I was lucky enough to learn that it was not weird for a woman to be a writer and that what you do to earn a living does not define the person you are.

My mom, who thankfully quit her job at a bookstore, is still sitting on her couch reading, doing research, and writing. I currently date a full-time musician who works really hard, is super talented, and gets paid to do something he loves. But people who are paid for what they create don’t really get paid holidays, and they could write an entirely different blog post on the precarity of being paid for creating things. (Except they are probably too busy making things to do that.)

The point I am trying to make is simple. Time off is important—it should be available to everyone, not just people who work 40 hours a week. It is important for people who want to spend it with their families, or for people who choose to have kids, and for people that enjoy commemorating holidays. But it’s also an important time to create, to think, and to do a different kind of work that is just as, if not more, important than the stuff you get paid to do. Even if people don’t seem to get the importance of it.

So when people ask me what I did over vacation my answer is pretty simple: I worked. And while often I get sad looks and assumptions about an unhappy life at home in return, I can’t really imagine spending my vacation in a more meaningful way.

Thank you, Mom, for teaching me that is ok.

Interview: Amanda Atkins

The Freelance Writing Survival Kit