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What Is Labor Anyway?

Sandra Lindberg


What Is Labor Anyway?

What Is Labor Anyway?

Unpaid Labor, Labor, Work, Dedication, Care, Skill, Love, Balance, Sustainability

Called out of class by the provost on a Monday morning. He lightly puts a hand on my forearm. I see the sweet lady from HR standing right next to him, looking so upset.

“I’m sorry to tell you,” he says, “but your son has been in a terrible motorcycle accident.”

And like that the entire world shifted.

No one thought our son would survive the first 24 hours. But he did. And though doctors and nurses seemed doubtful that he was even aware of us, I believed I felt flickers of response from him as I talked to him and held his hand.

So what does this situation have to do with a discussion of labor issues? Everything, I am discovering.

How do you measure or value the dedication of nurses, who though uncertain of a patient’s cognitive function, were guided by x-rays and MRI’s as they carefully turned and moved our son to cause him the least possible pain? Their labor informed by their care and skill saved our son countless experiences of additional suffering.

How do you quantify or reward doctors who look at brain scans that show much blood on the surface of the brain, and who turn to a young man’s parents with the most honest and hopeful of comments, “There is blood on the surface of the brain but we can’t see any obvious sign of brain injury. We must wait and see.” How do you assign a value to experience, caring, and the commitment to uncertainty when that not-knowing is the best hope a doctor can offer?

And how do you come to understand work–labor–performed round the clock by parents who never talk about it but just understand that for a young man who cannot speak or open his eyes it is essential that either mom or dad is at his side every minute? How do you assign a value to parents’ understanding that for this young man to awaken into moments of terrible pain with no one familiar beside him would be an unspeakable agony?

What I am learning in the midst of our son’s terrible accident has surprised me and given me hope unlike any I have known for years. It doesn’t matter what economic system surrounds people and attempts to determine how they are to behave. People are caring creatures. I am seeing it 24 hours a day in the Intensive Care Unit of our local hospital. Administrators may strap devices to nursing staff so that lights go off outside the room when they enter. Sensors may measure every moment and action they perform with patients, all in the name of standard of care compliance, I guess. No matter what they wear on their wrists, those caring for our son do what they can hour after hour to give him the best chance at survival.

All of us give this young man sustenance–what he needs to sustain life. Sometimes that is a salve for his lips, sometimes that is kind, gentle words as yet more needles go into his arms.

What happens at this hospital under extreme circumstances happens in countless ways in homes and workplaces all across the planet. The untold, immeasurable kindnesses that are part of many people’s lives prove that humans simply ignore in tiny, unending ways a system that insists on measuring the world in dollars, power and control.

We can redesign our socio-economic and political system so that it truly reflects how people behave in the most intimate of situations. The current system is imploding and forcing people to realize we have only ourselves to turn this mess around. All the stories of human atrocities, cruelty and greed–rather than assuming that these behaviors are what most truly reflect humanity, I think it would be useful to determine how many of those twisted choices were engendered by a system intent on profit–for a few.

When the man waiting at a red light in the pesticide company van jumped out to reach our son as he hit the pavement, when he yelled in his face, “Breathe!” and gently rubbed his stomach so the breath would come, that man labored. That man cared. And that man is all of us.