“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
Have a question for Kai? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a lesbian and co-run a tiny business with my wife. It’s not easy, but it got us both out of abusive workplaces and we’ve agreed that being stressed about self-employment taxes beats being treated like dirt by managers any day. That said, I’m the one who deals with the taxes — I do all of the accounting, work with our vendors and manage our health insurance. It feels like she’s getting a pass when it comes to the really hard aspects of living in late capitalism because I’m doing all of the work.
We’ve talked about it a lot. When tax time comes and I’m stressed as hell, she’s supposed to take over more domestic work; but she doesn’t, and it’s very hard to ask her to do more, so we fight. She’s physically disabled and I’m mentally ill, but on days when neither of us can function, I’m the one who has to push through and do something.
I keep looking ahead and seeing that this can’t last. I’m trying to be accommodating and supportive, while also working at a sustainable pace. But then sales lag, and I have to pick up the slack again.
Do we tread water in the hopes that things will get better? Do we give up trying to run an ethical business and see if we can put these skills to use somewhere that will pay us decently and provide health insurance?
Are we just going to drown, as they say, hand in unlovable hand?
— Working Three Shifts
What an incredible burden you are carrying on your shoulders. Not only are you trying to carve out a means of survival for yourself, you’re also doing it for your wife while running an ethical business in a distinctly unethical capitalist society. This, to me, is the very definition of injustice — that you and your wife are forced to choose between the health-destroying pace of self-employment or the (possibly even more) health-destroying environment of being someone’s employee. Like you, I have experienced both in my working life, and I know the toll they can each take. Of the holy trinity of health, financial security and personal fulfilment, capitalism says we may have, at most, two out of three at any given time — and, more often than not, none.
That said, I’m not going to give you and your wife advice about how to run your business or manage your careers. I don’t have enough context and, even if I did, I have a terrible mind for business. What I can do is try to help you sort out some of the emotional and social factors that seem to be affecting your relationship and work situation.
You are really asking two questions here: one is about your relationship with your wife and what feels like an unsustainable breakdown of labour between the two of you. The other is about the broader context of what it means to try to survive in an economic system designed to cast off marginalized people — particularly those who are disabled and others who are deemed “useless” or “unproductive” to the free market. The latter impacts the former, of course, but it can be helpful at times to separate them so that you can develop strategies for dealing with each.
Let’s begin with your relationship: it’s clear to me, Working, that you’re frustrated and overwhelmed. I hope it’s not presumptuous to say that there seems to be a pattern here of you working beyond your limit and then feeling resentful. When things seem to be falling apart, it’s you who has to rush to the rescue. Resentment is the lot of chronic rescuers (including yours truly), because in reality we long to be rescued ourselves — to be taken care of and relieved of the burden of being responsible all the time. Yet we often preclude this fantasy from becoming reality because we aren’t able to let go to let others take the reins in their own imperfect, messy ways.
I’m saying this, Working, because I’m wondering what might happen if you and your wife took another stab at talking about your limits and needs: if you let her know that, underneath the frustration, there lies a deep fear of not being able to hold it together, of losing your business and, perhaps, each other. What if you expressed all this, as well as the exhaustion you feel, in a gentle but deeply honest way? What if you really made it clear that you are hitting a limit and that something needs to change, not just for the sake of your business, but for the sake of your relationship?
It seems to me that the way things are now, you are repeatedly crossing your own boundaries in order to survive. In order to be healthy — and to feel respected — you really need something to change. At the moment, you are going from crisis to crisis, constantly putting out fires which inevitably causes great wear and tear on the nervous system and on the mind. What if you made it your priority to get out of that state of crisis and focus on your immediate health and stability? That is to say, what if you started putting yourself and your personal needs above all else?
Of course, all this would be easier to do if we didn’t live in the grim, eat-or-be-eaten, Lord-of-the-Flies-Hunger-Games-Handmaid’s-Tale-Parable-of-the-Sower mashup that is our current reality. It’s kind of hard to put self care first when this month’s rent is at stake. Here’s where your second question about social factors comes in.
The truth is that our neoliberal capitalist system was not designed to be stable or humane, and it is predicated on the breakdown of the collective social bonds that are meant to sustain us in times of need. That is to say, Working, it sounds like you need to ask for help.
Do you have a community network of friends, acquaintances, industry partners? Do you have supportive biological and/or chosen family members? Are there therapists, spiritual leaders or other guides and healers in your life? Now might be the time to let them know what is going on, where your physical and mental health is at and start building a team and a strategy for making things more livable.
Now, I say this as the reigning Queen of Never Asking For Help, the First Lady of Doing It Herself and the Grand Duchess of Independent Suffering. It freaking sucks to ask for help and let people know you are having a hard time. But Working, if there is anyone out there who can make things even just a little bit easier for you, I really believe that you deserve their support. Things often seem less dire, and we often feel less trapped, when we have people helping us from an outsider’s perspective — and, better yet, with physical support.
In her collection of essays Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, writer and cultural worker Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about “care webs”— a strategy used by disabled queer and racialized people to help each other get the resources and care they need to survive. A care web is essentially a network of people you can call upon, for example, on days when both you and your wife are non-functional and need someone to help with food, cleaning and errands. This network could be called upon ahead of tax season to help with domestic stuff when you’re stressed out with work. Friends and other informal acquaintances can be part of your care web (and you can reciprocate the care when you are able), but so can more formal supports like social workers and outreach workers.
The point is, Working, that you do not have drown with your wife, undervalued hand in underemployed hand. That is what capitalism wants us to do — but I believe with my whole heart that we cannot allow this to happen to us or to our communities. We must make noise as we are drowning, as our heads start to slip below the surface. We have to scream and flail until someone comes to our aid. And you know what? More often than I used to think possible, people do come through in some way or another.
It isn’t easy. It isn’t fair. But I believe you can find a way, Working. Seize your life and hold on tight. Do not allow them to let you drown.