On the labor of speaking

Today I attended The Scholar & Feminist XL: Action on Education conference at Barnard College. One of the workshops, led by Karen Gregory and Elizabeth Losh, used a “Long Table” format to explore what a “life support system” for the precariat in the academy could look like. In it, we were asked to rapid prototype a labor-saving device based on our own experience with and relationship to precarity. Thinking about the labor we do in our lives, what kind of feminist technology could we imagine to lessen our burden? I had to run out after the session, but I was so moved by some of the connections that were made during the discussion that I wrote this personal essay on the train.


Lyric Theatre, Third Avenue between 12th and 13th street, Manhattan (Berenice Abbott, Federal Art Project)
Lyric Theatre, Third Avenue between 12th and 13th street, Manhattan (Berenice Abbott, Federal Art Project)

I’m thinking today about the labor of speaking. And how difficult it is to formulate words. Or how painful it can be to listen to yourself talk. Her speech was labored.

I see this in my younger son frequently. He is 4 years old and has a speech disorder known as childhood apraxia of speech. It’s an oral-motor condition that means he doesn’t have the motor plans in his brain to produce the sound he wants to make. It means that he has to think about how to make a sound where most of us just do it. He has the language and the vocabulary, and can physically make most sounds when they arrive without thought—in playing, or in song. But when he is trying to make the sounds into words—to communicate intentionally—he gets mixed up. He’ll fall back on words that are easier for him to say, using “what” in place of “that” or transposing sounds so that basket becomes bak-set.

He does fairly well despite his occasional un-intelligibility. There is a certain poetry to his words as unexpected meanings will sometimes emerge from his unusual constructions. But it all falls apart when he gets emotionally upset. The act of speaking in words has become such an added labor in his life that in those times when he is angry, or disappointed, or scared, he shuts down and refuses to speak. Instead, he’ll hit, or groan such that he sounds like an elephant trumpeting, not triumphantly, but mournfully, unmistakably meaning no, no, no. (He is also incredibly stubborn.) And, inevitably, some well-meaning adult will come along with the admonition to “Use your words!” and rub salt in his little 4-year-old wounds.


I don’t have a problem speaking in public. I don’t jump at the idea, but I can do it. On a good day I feel not just comfortable but actually invigorated by speaking in front of people. Leading a workshop or giving a presentation has the formal structure that somehow gets me to tap into my well of meaning and summon it in ways that I just can’t in other circumstances. When I’m the instructor, or tour guide, or hostess, or cashier, I have a role to play and I can turn it on or off. Because it’s all a performance, right?

So why can’t I do the same when the role assigned to me is me? Why has my narrative of myself remained as the shy, awkward, does-not-belong-in-this-room second-grader who’s desperately searching for a way to express herself without having to speak? Because I fear that I do not speak your language, I do not come from your world, I do not value what you value and I do not know what you take to be known. Why must we always speak?

I’m trying to find a way to be more authentic, to move away from a compartmentalized, modular self and allow the joy from one part of my life to spill into the others. For those parts of my life that are without joy desperately need some kind of joy. And that, to me, is my struggle with precarity. It is the struggle of being everything part-time: part-time student, part-time worker, part-time stay-at-home mother. I’m not really a grad student because I’m not in a PhD program. I’m not really a librarian because I only work 12 hours a week. I’m not really a stay-at-home mom but I don’t really have a job and I don’t really have a babysitter so what side of the mommy wars am I supposed to choose?

It’s this being so terribly in-between all the time.

And it is exhausting to re-calibrate myself to each situation. So forgive me if I meet you in person and seem distracted. Or if I awkwardly try to introduce myself to you because, hey, authentic self, right? Or if I talk too much about being a mom when we are most definitely not supposed to speak of such things.


So I shouldn’t be surprised (though I was) that my idea for a feminist labor-saving device was designed to remove the labor of speaking. Why must we always speak? And I shouldn’t be surprised (though I was) that all I could see was my 4-year-old struggling with words as I stumbled through an explanation of how demanding the call to speak can be.

Precarity is more than a job status or economic condition. It becomes a condition of the self.

If I just keep rearranging the parts they will eventually form a whole.

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