Labor of Love or Just Labor?


My first year in college, I wanted to throw away my math scholarship and switch majors.  Something about 2+2=4,, was getting under my skin.  In my world, 2=2 was five one day, and pink Toyotas the next.  As punishment (or rather, to be sure) my advisor game me the Saint Joseph College course catalog, told me to highlight every single course I found interesting and come back the next day with it.  I was dutiful, and spent several hours highlighting the catalog.  When she saw that I loved every single course description, from psychology and biology to nursing and counseling, she recommended an introduction to Social Work class.  About two weeks into the semester I was sold.  Two plus two was very rarely four.  Sometimes, I longed for the days that it was.

I was recently asked to share my thoughts about my career path, and whether it’s a calling (labor of love) or if it’s just work, and I thought back to that assignment.  Naturally, I believe that social work is a calling.  The salary sure doesn’t otherwise justify it.  To work in such an underrepresented and under-funded sector of social services, violence against women and children, is a straight up mission.  Yet, however meager, it is also a paycheck.  It’s both.

Sometimes, I love my job.

Sometimes, I hate it.

There are the days I tolerate it.

Other times, I can’t get enough of it.

Still others, all I want to do is stare at pictures of my kids while I wait for the clock to tick until I can get home to them.

There are the times I can’t wait to get to work to get a break from them.

There are the days I am so euphoric about a development at work or even a simple interaction that I feel I’ve reached enlightenment.

It’s all true, and all work, and doesn’t for a second take away from the fact that my work is my calling.  It also doesn’t take from the fact that it pays the bills. I remember a couple of years ago, in my routine annual check up, my primary care provider asked me how work was going.  My sigh must have been extra long or extra loud, because she prodded a bit.  I love what I do, I love who I serve, I love watching seeds blossom and families grow.  I love the reports I get from adults and children years later when they are finally free to talk about how their lives have changed.

Watching staff or students learn a new skill thrills me.

Helping a child have a “normal” day inspires me.

Seeing someone flee “just in time” validates my efforts.

Yet, it comes at a cost.  I am tired often.  I am traumatized at times.  I am triggered by the trauma of others more often that I wish.  After working in the field of Violence Against Women for 21 years, violence still occurs.  While I long to put myself out of business it hasn’t happened yet.  Sometimes I feel like to fight for funding when lives are at stake sucks at my soul.  Seeking funds for a parent and child to have a safe roof over their head feels personal.  It’s my calling, my work, it is personal.  It’s personal and beautiful and messy and hard and exhausting and underappreciated and clumsy and mistake-filled.

It’s a lot like the rest of my glorious life.

I work with a lot of women who need to reclaim employment to get back on their feet.  Some leave great jobs to find safety.  Others haven’t worked in years.  For many, they feel ashamed of finding entry-level employment.  We try to remind them that it’s a beginning.  While it will not be enough to support your family long term, it is enough to begin to rebuild a résumé.  It is enough to be proud of.  It is plenty to hold your head high about.  It feeds your family.  Is it not also personal and beautiful and messy and hard and exhausting and underappreciated and clumsy and mistake-filled?

It’s a lot like the rest of your glorious life.

Meaning and purpose in our work can be found in many ways, and it all matters.  While I wished we valued all work enough to pay it all well, for now, remind yourself that whether or not your work is your “mission,” it is still your “labor of love.”  It matters.

I have the honor of laboring with these amazing characters!

6 thoughts on “Labor of Love or Just Labor?

  1. This is such good writing. I love how well you identify the “back and forth” of your feelings towards what you do. Keep fighting the good fight.


  2. Sharlene, I can totally identify with this. I have cried after clients have left my office, racing in the door at home to hold my daughter tight. And I have celebrated when someone can remain sober or when a precious “lightbulb” goes off for them. Big high five and hug to you, Momma. And I know you know, but remember to take care of yourself, vicarious trauma can be depleting.


  3. Sharlene this post perfectly describes how I feel about my work too. Wonderful writing as always. And thank you for what you do – it’s so incredibly important!


  4. It’s really too bad that salary doesn’t always correlate to how hard one works or how much passion one has, because your field SHOULD be really well compensated for all you do. Social work is such an important, crucial field to our world. Thank you for what you do (and do well)!


  5. Sharlene, what a beautifully written piece! I loved every word of it. I can totally relate with my own line of work, and I’m sure others can too. Thank you for doing such important work day after day.


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