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Hardly Working > Working Hard

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

I am no stranger to being completely bowled over by a very common, no-big-deal phrase (see this post for another example!). When I was kid, my mom asked “are you really going to eat that?” and “wow, you’re eating as much as your dad!” and “it’s a snack, not a meal,” and those still haunt me to this day.

But in 2009, I was asked by a coworker “what’s your other thing?” and it threw me into an existential crisis, because I didn’t have anything besides work. I defined myself by my jobs and my work ethic and that was it.

I started to say that I liked to read, but while that was technically true, it didn’t feel true in the moment. I always identified as a voracious reader, and as a kid, I really was. I read books quickly and constantly, and was rewarded with heaps of praise and money--my grandma gave me $1 per book I read. But I couldn’t remember the last book I read or if there were any other books I even wanted to read, so that felt inauthentic.

And this coworker was the perfect combination of authority figure and nonchalantly cool artsy dude that made me want to be really honest, but also impressive.

I was fucked. I had NOTHING to say and I was so embarrassed. I had no idea who I was outside of work. Worse, I didn’t even think to cultivate a self that was separate from work.

Hard work is one of the main Sandstrom Family Values. When my paternal Grandfather, Grandpa Sandy, died, we all mentioned how he was working on the farm until the day before he died with some kind of awed reverence. We were impressed that he worked until he died.

Doing manual labor on a farm at 90 years old is impressive. But that’s not what we were praising. We were praising his work ethic. His literal “work until you die” mentality.

No wonder I didn’t even think you could be separate from your work identity! I never got that message.

After the “what’s your other thing” conversation, I did a ton of journaling and tried to dabble in hobbies, but none of that really stuck until much more recently (which is also 12 years later), when I learned that self-care isn’t just a bubble bath and a face mask on Sunday night. For me, it’s honoring myself, cultivating skills and hobbies that are just for me, that bring me joy. It’s having “other things” that I enjoy doing. It’s seeking joy and putting myself first.

And it’s hard. It’s a practice to have “other things.” Most days, I wake up between 5 and 6 a.m. so that I have time, before anyone else is awake, to take care of myself. At a bare minimum, I brush my teeth, do some skincare, and get dressed before I tend to Henry, my toddler. Most mornings though, I do all of that PLUS make some delicious coffee (thank you 6+ years as a specialty coffee barista), and read. Yep, read. From an actual book. I’m currently prepping for a trip to Paris by reading books about, set in, or mentioning Paris. I just finished (for the third time) the Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and before that, I read Everyone Behaves Badly by Lesley Blume (the story of Hemingway and his pals as he wrote the Sun Also Rises). I’m currently working through the Sun Also Rises (still can’t decide if I like Hemingway, but he’s iconic so I’m giving him another chance).

The rewards that come from taking this time for myself far outweigh any costs. Sure, I get up early, but then I get to fully enjoy a slow morning, listening to the birds chirp. I also get to feel virtuous for getting up before so many people. I’ve started caring for plants, painting, and have always enjoyed decorating, but reading is something that fills my cup the most.

When I make time for reading, as well as all of the other self-care stuff, I am a different, better person. I’m slower to react to toddler tantrums and other triggering events, I’m more level headed when my siblings ask for advice, I’m able to handle work stress much better, and generally just feel better about myself.

Sure, sometimes it sucks to put myself first. It often feels like I’m doing the wrong thing, or cheating my family out of the best of me when I put myself first. But that’s not true. When I can show up fully for myself, I can show up fully for them. And I can show Henry that his emotions aren’t too big. That he isn’t too much for me. That he doesn’t have to be less in order to feel loved.

I won’t know for many years if this is working for Henry, but I know it’s working for me, and it’s making my relationship with my husband better too.

I'd rather be remembered for hardly working and pursuing joy instead, than for working hard.

So, what’s your other thing?

Thanks, Eirean.

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