I’ve struggled with workaholism for decades.
Like an addict just living for the next fix, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t compulsively chasing the next gig, the next promotion, the next byline, the next whatever. Chasing the high that satisfied for a moment, but always wore off and left me frantically chasing again. If I wasn’t working myself into the ground, I felt like a waste of humanity. But then God used a global pandemic—and some dirty toilets—to show me what true contentment in work is supposed to look like.
My first memory of workaholic tendencies was at four years old, designing make-shift carnival games in my basement and “charging” my family members top dollar to play them. By elementary school, I had graduated to selling lemonade and box-mix brownies from the end of my driveway.
In high school, I lined up my first job at an ice cream shop two weeks before I turned 16 so that I could start earning a taxable income the day I was legally able to do so.
Throughout college, I rarely worked less than two jobs at a time—not because I needed to cover tuition (I was fortunate to have my parents foot the bill), but because I just liked to work.
Then I got my first big-girl job after graduation. Though I was paid for 9 to 5 hours, I was often the first employee to unlock the office each morning, stayed late enough to know the evening janitorial crew by name, and more than once spent a Sunday afternoon hustling away at my office desk. Not because my boss expected it, but because I compulsively took extra projects to fill my hours. Oh, and I was also doing freelance side projects for several other companies at the same time. Just, you know, for fun.
Are you sensing a theme here?
By age 32, I had popped out a couple of kiddos and felt God had called me to leave my downtown office to care for my kids full-time, but don’t think for a second I wasn’t still finding ways to work. Like a few diapers could impede my work addiction? Psh, please.
I took freelance editorial projects during my little ones’ naps, chipped away at deadlines well into the night, and snuck away on weekends to work in coffee shops while my husband watched the kids. I didn’t even bother with maternity leave when my second son was born. He was three weeks old when I jumped back into the grind—editing Word docs with one hand while breastfeeding with the other and punching out copy while bouncing a wee babe in an Ergo. And that was A-OK by me.
I just liked to work, I told myself. No shame in being a hard worker, I said. Nothing to see here, folks.
It took a global pandemic to show me I was wrong.
When COVID hysteria swept the world, and my life (and everyone else’s) turned cuckoo for cocoa puffs, I was faced with a new reality.
I couldn’t work in the way I’d always classified “work” (i.e. meeting deadlines, getting a paycheck, garnering praise from clients). My freelance work dried up those first few lockdown weeks, and even if there had been work available, my days were utterly consumed with trying to keep two toddler boys from stabbing each other with plastic action figures.
Like so many people, I really struggled with the strange and sudden new rhythms of quarantine.
I was antsy. Irritable. Claustrophobic. Resentful. My extroverted, workaholic soul felt shriveled and dry. Since my work addiction wasn’t being fed, I even felt worthless.
But that all changed one Wednesday morning about mid-way through quarantine. Our monthly cleaning lady hadn’t been by in six weeks (hang with me, I know that sounds so #karen), and our toilets festered with dingy, brownish rings.
Well, someone had to clean them, I admitted. And since my husband was swamped with his “real” job that earned a paycheck, I guessed that person was me.
Scrubbing bathrooms, folding laundry, wiping baby butts, baking casseroles—these were exactly the kinds of domestic chores I frankly kinda loathed as a stay-at-home mom. It’s the inglorious stuff that got in the way of the freelance projects I’d rather be doing: my “work.”
But alas. Those toilet rings weren’t going to clean themselves.
So I dramatically swung open the cleaning closet, surveying my weapons of choice. Just then, my 4-year-old hollered from the other room, “Mommy, come play Legos with me!”
“Can’t now, buddy,” I grunt-hollered back. “Mommy has to clean toilets.” I yanked out some paper towels and blew dust off the toilet brush holder.
He popped his curious little head into the bathroom. “Can I help?”
“I mean, I guess. If you want to,” I said suspiciously.
“Yay!” he squealed.
For the next hour, my 4-year-old and I scrubbed the toilets, Windexed the mirrors, de-gunked the faucets, wiped down the countertops, and then washed the dirty pots in the kitchen sink, just because we were on a roll.
When we were finished, he put his hands on his hips and faced me with a satisfied grin. “Phew! I had a lot of fun working with you this morning, Mom.”
Something clicked in my heart. Working with me, he had said.
I was reminded of some wise words written by a writer named Paul from the Bible. He said, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23).
I had to admit—I felt pretty satisfied with all that grime we’d scrubbed away. I received zero paycheck and zilch accolades for it, but our tasks felt good and honorable. Satisfying, even.
A couple of days later, my son asked me, “Mom, can we work again today?”
Sure, I told him.
So while his little brother napped, my older son “helped” me mow the lawn, sweep the sidewalk, trim the rose bushes, blow blossoms off the driveway, and pick moss from the cracks of our stone patio. As we sat there on the patio, side-by-side with mossy earth caked under our fingernails, he was more content than he’d been in weeks. Certainly more content than when I forced him to do those Pinterest homeschool projects.
“This feels good, doesn’t it, buddy?” I said.
He smiled. “Yeah, Mom.”
Struck by a rare moment of divine wisdom that I honestly can’t take credit for, I heard myself saying, “You know, buddy, God actually made us to work. It’s how He designed us. Right after God created Adam, he put him in the Garden of Eden to do work, because he knew that it would make Adam happy. That’s why we feel good when we work, no matter what kind of work we’re doing.”
As the words tumbled from my mouth, I realized it wasn’t just me speaking to my child. It was God speaking to me.
On those quarantine days that I had felt worthless and restless because I wasn’t able to do my “passion work,” it’s because I had a skewed view of God’s design for work. I had always viewed work as a means to justify my value—to prove I was capable or smart or efficient or using my talents, or whatever. To prove I was worth something.
Thanks to quarantine, God has helped me redefine work. He’s shown me that work isn’t just the stuff that earns a paycheck. It also might not be stuff we’re naturally “passionate” about or even talented at. But when I choose to find joy in the work He’s put in front of me—which I would define as caring for the people and possessions he’s entrusted me with—then genuine satisfaction naturally follows.
I believe the Bible teaches us in Genesis (the part where Adam was created) that God gave us work as a gift, but it’s not meant to define our value.
For those struggling to find employment in a crumbling economy, I even believe that job searching, applying for jobs, and pursuing an education are examples of God-honoring work.
I’m slowly coming to grips with the fact that any work in front of me today—whether everyday housework or glitzy corporate work—has the same purpose: to reflect a piece of God’s character (because He worked, too), and to honor one of the ways he created us to thrive.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty stoked about some toilets that need cleaning.