The Fruits of Labor and Its Guilt

Here’s the tale of a girl who often overworks and rarely enjoys the moments.

“Don’t work yourself to death,” is my father’s way of telling me that my scales are tipping too far in one direction.

My relationship with work is a complicated one in the past few years that yo-yos between this unrelenting urge as a writer to crank out all of these stories, ideas, and perspectives from the worldwide imaginative, introverted brain and learning how to rest and combat the feeling that if I’m not working I’m unproductive.

Outside of working a standard 9-to-5 that pays the bills (and student loan debt), the real work starts at 5:30 p.m. as I create and face the passion projects that are bubbling for my attention. On top of writing and doing a podcast, I threw in a side gig as a weekend writer that ate up 16 more hours of my time for nearly nine months. An alley-oop from God allowed me to write and brought in extra income after freelancing in conjunction with the pandemic led to severe burnout.

“Do you ever take a break?” my father asked, not enthusiastic but still supportive of this side-gig. I brushed it off and kept going with enthusiasm but when it ended abruptly…I was relieved.

In a culture that romanticizes overworking, over-grinding, “25/8” mentality, and turning every opportunity into a shaming tactic. You suddenly feel as though you’re not doing enough. I sadly fell victim to it and the perspective of working harder but often I never took the time to savor the fruits of my labor. I’m often so dedicated to my writing and working on something that part of me doesn’t feel worthy yet of eating the fruits.

Loved ones or supporters would literally have to remind me that I wasn’t “trying,” as I always say modestly, but “doing.” They were literally saying, “Hey, girl, eat this damn pear! You grew it. You earned it.”

“Don’t work yourself to death.”

I look at younger photos of myself to tap into the spirit of little Ashley who scribbled on every piece of paper in the house to my mother’s annoyance. Photos of me writing in notebooks or clutching a storybook I’ve written and decorated with crayons on printer paper. That Ashley stood in front of her second-grade class to read her story aloud and ate up the attention from her classmates. Her imagination and spirit were boundless, and she was proud of her words.

Thirty-year-old Ashley has characters and stories living hostage in her head that anxiety and perfectionism surround it like an electric fence. I’ve come to question my work and if it’ll be good enough before it even has a chance to start. It drives me insane when I feel an overall weight and duty in my spirit to tell stories that will move people and release them from my world. I feel like I’m doing the bold little Ashley a disservice who watched Reading Rainbow and wrote short stories, as well as someone out there who needs it.

I grew up with stories and examples on the work ethic of both sides of the family whose survival was depended upon their work, especially in the prejudiced south. Laziness of any sort was frowned upon and still is by the older generation with their feelings backed by the bible verse 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”

On the other side of that was eating from your labor and my father definitely took advantage for nearly three decades of work. He never missed an opportunity to remind me of that — which I understood — and yet I had to push down the internal battle of whether getting a facial at a spa was a splurge. Taking time for yourself or even treating yourself is a necessity and being I had to work and sacrifice so much, I started feeling guilty.

The term “worked yourself to death” was used by my father about his mother, who raised 11 children in Louisiana and was 45 when she died of a heart attack on her front porch. My maternal grandmother worked to support nine children and my mother often said, “I don’t know how she did it.” I think to myself, I have nothing to complain about. I have it easy. I’m alone am a handful to take care of but knowing that a child depends on me to survive gives me anxiety. I would kiss my grandmothers’ hard-working feet and dip them in gold.

My mother was an example of an overworker as she’d often quote my grandmother’s saying, “You never get nothing done sitting on your ass” though her body was telling her enough. She acknowledged the toll it has on her body as she grows older to the point that my grandmother said in concern that she did too much. (“When you’ve been working all of your life you don’t know how to turn it off,” she says).

“Well, luckily I can,” I said jokingly as I’m now working from home and stuck at a desk for eight hours. Even when it drains me, I’m defined by my work and have to push past my weariness to deliver what is expected of me. I daydream of when I can be in a space where my personal work as a writer and storyteller will take places that would exist the younger version of me.

Now, I’ve been rethinking my relationship with working. I know I’ll be working for the rest of my life — that goes without saying — though I wish I can live freely on a private island with no responsibilities. That’s my fantasy. Realistically speaking, I’m processing the balance between working hard to achieve what I’ve been dreaming of for years to become a respected writer and author, and understanding that rest has its part.

Whether I’m overdoing it some days or feeling as though I’m not doing enough, sometimes I have to give myself grace in between the two and say, “I’m doing my best…and that’s enough.”

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Ashley Gail Terrell

Creator of ASH LEMONADE. Entertainment Writer: Ebony, Essence, VIBE, The Root, Black Girl Nerds, HuffPost, Paste Magazine, & more.