Nonprofit work, and the myth of indispensability


hyacinth-1403653_1280Hi everyone, this post may be melancholy and depressing. I won’t be upset if you skip this and read something more hilarious, like “Ask a Nonprofit Director: Advice on Love, Family, and Other Stuff.” Or these nonprofit cocktail recipes.

Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday, and I will wake up to realize that my mother has been gone for ten years. She died at the age of 49 of a stroke. When you’ve lost someone, holidays can be terrible to endure. The first few Mother’s Days I just stayed in bed most of the morning, envious of all those happy people taking their moms to brunch.

Now I am older, so I try to figure out what this all means, what I can learn from all this. I run through memories I have. Since it was one of the last moments I had with her, I recall coming home from college, and being greeted by the smell of her cooking. Sweet and sour soup, tofu sautéed in tomatoes, braised bamboo shoots—dishes she had learned to make when I told her I had decided to go vegan.

My mother stood there at the sink washing dishes, smiling. The late-afternoon sunlight streaming through our kitchen window fell on her hair, and she’d greet me with these sweet maternal words: 

“You’re too skinny. You look like one of those drug addicts on TV.”

I’d hug her, which would confuse my mom, since we don’t hug much in Vietnamese culture. While I ate, she would sit down next to me, smiling and staring. “Finish this food,” she said, “tomorrow I’m going to make you stuffed cabbage. No one is going to marry you when you look like this.”

She’d look unusually content just sitting there watching me, and I’d try to enjoy it, for later on she would lose her temper and yell about how messy the house was, or how lazy we kids were, never doing our chores without being asked. On occasion, she would tell me that it was not too late to give up this nonprofit nonsense and go to medical school.

It has been ten years, and I have forgotten so many things. Her laughter, the sound of her singing while she’s cleaning, the way she cracked roasted watermelon seeds or popped bubble wrap while watching Chinese soap operas. The cadence of her footsteps as she walked up the stairs with boxes of soap and paper towels she’d bought from Costco.

Some of the memories are painful, like the arguments we had. I had become a bitter teenager, resentful at being forced to help out after-school at the convenience store my parents bought and ran. During my high-school years we exchanged ten words per day. My parents worked all the time, fifteen hours daily, and we had dinner together as a family maybe twice a year. My mother picked us kids up from school, and I would stonewall her every attempt to make conversation until silence was our default. I remember on one of these awkward, lonely drives she suddenly said, with a sigh, “Linda’s dog lost three pounds.” My sister had left her Tamagotchi pet, popular at the time, with our mom to take care of while she was at school, where they had been banned. The combination of my mother grasping at something to say and the fact that she was so concerned about a digital puppy even as she worked her long hours, was both comic and deeply sad. I said nothing in reply, and we both stared at the road.

The day I left for college, we still didn’t exchange any words. I knew she never wanted me to leave home, and the acceptance letter from my school in St. Louis broke her heart. I had loaded up the taxi with my luggage, and she nodded at me and went inside the house. I went back in and found her standing in her room, her face in her hands, crying.

I’m glad that at the end, we had rebuilt our relationship, and my final memories of her are happy ones. But still, there are so many things I would change. Last month, I went back to the house in West Seattle to visit my father, and the sight of the pile of firewood in the backyard triggered memories of my mother loading up the wheelbarrow in the snow and pushing the wood to our front porch so we could burn it in the fireplace. And it reminded me of what a self-centered, thoughtless person I had been. My mother had given up everything, and pedaled for miles on her bicycle in the cold of our village, carrying heavy loads of grains to sell at the market to feed our family, and in the US she would wash dishes at restaurants and deliver newspapers for The Seattle Times and sew backpacks late into the night. And there I was, pretending to be asleep when she came into my room to ask me to gather the firewood. I wish I could go back in time and run after her and say, “Mom, go inside. I’ll get the firewood.” If I could go back in time, I would get all the firewood, every day. I would talk to her. About everything. About nothing. I would take her to brunch once a while, even when it’s not Mother’s Day.

What is the point of all this? We in the nonprofit field are so busy because the work is pressing and people’s lives depend on our actions. In response, most of us have unconsciously adopted the mindset that we are indispensable, that things will collapse if we’re not around. The Indispensable Myth, which I mentioned briefly in “The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break,” is an important one, since it drives us all to do good work. But it is also dangerous. We work long hours in the evenings and weekends, hours that should be spent with people we love. We don’t take enough paternity and maternity leave. Out of guilt, some of us stay in positions or organizations longer than we want to. We lose touch with our friends. We watch our kids grow older, our parents frailer, and we wonder where the years went. Sometimes we work so much that we ignore the people around us, assuming that they will always be around. And sometimes it is too late.

A colleague and mentor of mine called me up once for personal advice. Her mother was showing signs of health problems. “Should I take a break from work and move down to take care of her?” she asked. I thought of the importance of my friend’s work, and her integrity in always getting things done. And then I thought of my mother and the things I wish I had done, the words I could have said, the time I could have spent. And it struck me as indicative of our field, and of our professionals’ dedication, that my friend even had to think about this decision.

If someone had told me that I would lose my mother one day, that all the memories of her I had created up to then would have to last me the rest of my life, I would have tried to create more, to create better ones, and to grasp them more firmly. I have accepted the fact that these are all the memories of her I will ever have, and I walk with them as if I were cradling apples in my arms, careful so that they don’t slip through. But so many have, and more will. Anyone who knows loss knows that you don’t lose someone just once, but multiple times; first the piercing pain when you realize that they are gone, and then a wistful sadness of realizing your memories of them are fading. Sometimes I wish I could walk up to the house and open the door and for just one more moment be greeted by the smell of my mother’s cooking.

“Yes,” I said, “spend time with your mom. You won’t regret it.”

We all need to temper the burden of unconsciously believing we are indispensable. We are not indispensable, and it is OK. It should be freeing. If we are not around, chances are, our organization will continue on without us. Other people will continue to do the work. Sadly, the problems we are trying to address will likely still be there way after we’re gone. So it’s OK to take a break once a while. Go on vacation with your family. If a loved one is sick, take time off to take care of them. And if you’ve been thinking about leaving your job for a while now but are feeling guilty about it, let it go, and move on. If you just became a parent, extend your leave so you can spend time with your new baby. Projects come and go, I was reminded by a colleague, but your kids only grow up one time. Life is too short to neglect the people around us, even for our world-changing missions. Our community would be better served if all of us take more time for the people we love. It is they who are indispensable, and we need to realize this before they’re gone.

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22 thoughts on “Nonprofit work, and the myth of indispensability

  1. Judy Levine

    Vu, as the parent of two teenage boys (well, one who just made it through to the other side to the ripe old age of 20) I have to speak to your memories about your teenage relationship with your mom. The long and short of it is: it’s hormones; it’s the fear that goes with traversing the journey from the old culture (both ethnically and the culture of being a child) to the new; and it’s the need, that transcends species, of figuring out the world on your own terms. We parents actually understand all that – but we don’t give an inch cause they’ll take a mile. In other words, we get it (though we may not like it) – and we accept that our teens must slay us in order to walk forward into their own lives.

    (But we don’t let them know we get it.)

    I am sure your mother got all that, and cheered you on even as she did a mother’s primary job during the teenage years – nagging in an attempt to keep the teen on the straight and narrow. Just the fact that she got the wood – instead of going into a sit-down-knock-out-strike (i.e. not getting the wood herself and letting the house get cold so you’d “suffer the consequences” of your “selfishness”) – tells me she got it. Speaking as a fellow mom who’s been there.

    The time now is to celebrate the pieces of her that are surfacing in your own parenting. Through you, your kids can know your own mom, and all she passed on to you. That’s something to celebrate this Mother’s Day.

  2. Pat Ryan

    Judy Levine – you nailed it.

    Vu, thanks for the reminder that we’re not indispensable. It’s so easy to think we are and that everyone’s counting on us. A colleague and I were discussing this last Friday, and you’re right, the people in our organization would hate to see us go, but the organization would go on without missing a beat.

  3. Karen Staley

    How often I have thought my son is growing up and I am missing too much! Excellent reminder that the world will keep spinning regardless of the number of hours we spend trying to save the world! Thank you!

  4. Kacey Wetzel

    Well this made me cry! Thanks for this reminder. When I get home from this conference I am going to plan what I will do with my mom for mothers day.

  5. Danielle Kempe

    I echo others that this post made me cry. Thank you for writing it though!

    You’re right that we often view ourselves as indispensable and do not spend the time with family/friends that we should – so we can spend a few more hours a day “saving the world”.

    I’m sure your Mom knew how much you meant to her, despite your teenage attitude.

  6. Amy Hanauer

    Vu, damn you, we are too indispensible to be crying at our desks! Go back to writing about Game of Thrones: my too-skinny 17 year old has to interpret those for me, it gives us something to talk about, and they never make me cry. I’m pretty sure your mother knew exactly what a mensch you would become.

  7. Laura Carpenter Myers

    I have presently been struggling with these very issues. I do NOT want to be indispensable. I want my remote board to feel and BE more engaged. My beleaguered staff is busy and harried enough doing their own jobs to have some of my “institutional memory” and tasks dumped off on them. I have been here 20 1/2 years. It’s feeling and sounding like time to abdicate. Someone equally capable, charming, confident, and competent and younger, is out there. Let them experience the joy of accomplishment I have had it’s time.

  8. Madeline Fish

    Well, I read as much of your post as I could before the flood of tears made me feel awkward at work. Your advice to your colleague is spot on… you’ll never regret just being there for your parents when they need you. After all, in the best and worst
    of circumstances, to the best of their ability, they were always there for you.

  9. Julie Varee

    This is just the sweetest, Vu. Remember your mother continues to live through you and your work to make the world a better place for all.

  10. Alan Schonborn

    Wonderful and of course, timely post Vu. As always, thanks for baring your soul so others of us might see ourselves reflected in your insight.

    I’ve been one of those around the clock, 7 days/week drivers of my agency’s mission for decades. It wasn’t until a conversation with my son about choosing his profession, that the light went off in my head. He’d already mirrored the long hours of a passionate drive to reach lofty accomplishments in his early educational years, but as is becoming more common for his generation, he knew that he wanted better work-life balance.

    He understands and values the impact my agency has on HIS world and needy individuals living in it. But he also lived within the family who’s daily life was regularly effected by that work. His words to me didn’t sting, rather they rang a note so long and loud that I still hear them now, years later. “I don’t want to work the kind of hours that you do.”

    It is never too late to alter our ego-enriching sense of indispensability. As Judy Levine noted, your mother’s impact on your life and your “repayment” for all her sacrifice comes through in parenting of your own kids and your relationship with others who you care deeply about. That includes all of the quasi-mothers in your life, waiting to hear from you this holiday and all year long.

  11. corbin1994

    I second everything Judy Levine said. As the mother of a now 20 year old son, I never felt that I’d lost our relationship or that it needed rebuilding, regardless of how distant he became. It is more a matter of keeping the relationship strong in my own heart, waiting for him to return to it, as I knew e would, and will again as he comes and goes, finding his own way in the world. I suspect your mother felt something similar.

  12. Patricia Garza

    As someone who just is recovering from a very severe flu bug I was overwhelmed by thoughts of work as I stayed home and recovered. Thank you for your honest but needed reminder that as we strive to do great work and help others we also need to look right in front of us, in the mirror and to our families, and take care of home too.

    1. Sherrie Smith

      We can’t take care of others unless we know how to take care of ourselves! It’s a long long road, we have to be certain we are healthy – mentally, emotionally, and physically.

  13. Sherrie Smith

    I used to get really sick at my job – it was so stressful and overwhelming. I’d have a fever, be coughing so hard I could hardly get out of bed and I’d be having a panic attack over missing work. So much to be done! And now my poor overburdened coworkers will have to take on MY work as well!
    Thankfully my work has changed and I do not have that anymore. Prioritizing what’s really important and what we can let go is a huge part of that. Thank you for reminding me.

  14. Beth Ann Locke

    Love! I feel as if I let my job drive my use of time when my daughter was young (and I was a single parent)… extra hours to prove how “good” I was. You just can’t get the time back – and it is your loved ones who need the nurturing and support as much as the community does. Thanks so much for your timely, heartfelt post!

  15. Julie Smith

    Vu, Judy pegged it. And, you will soon see for yourself how much your memories mean as you raise your children. I hope it makes you smile when you think, “I never thought I would say it, but I sound just like mom”. In our family we call it “channeling Rita”. My indomitable grandmother loved fiercely, praised constantly and pointed out with great delight, my every flaw. I really miss her and delight on the days my 75 year old mother gets to “channeling”. Thanks for sharing your beautiful tribute.

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