At the job I recently left, we used a three digit numerical code to organize our claims and assign credit for cases worked. These codes were called “end products,” and they ruled our lives. Different kinds of claims had different end products – initial claims that would require much more research were one type of code, while reopened claims that would already have most of the evidence already of record were another. We used end products to assign work, to organize our time during the day, and to claim credit for whatever we had accomplished during the week. End products had a long life – each lasted as long as the claim was pending, so at any given time you had end products hanging around that had been established more than a year ago, more than two years ago. End products had suspense dates, which told us when we had to look at each claim again. Most of our daily work assignments were based on end products that had expired suspense dates. As a supervisor, I spent a huge percentage of my time every week fretting about how many end products we had that were expired, that had been neglected for more than 30 days, more than 60 days.
For twelve years, “end product” was a piece of jargon I used without thinking. I never thought of the term as I would if I was using regular English, as a “product” that would result at the “end” of our efforts, something measurable, with value. End products were merely a code, a way of mentally organizing the enormous ocean of claims awaiting action from an understaffed and undertrained team. And yet now, in my new life as a stay-at-home parent and would-be writer, I am obsessed with the idea of what kind of products come at the end of my work. What do I create as a result of all this sitting and typing? What are the measurable values that result from my parenting efforts? I spend enormous mental energy trying to justify time I spend that doesn’t have a clear and measurable result towards one or more of my goals. It doesn’t help that no one is holding me accountable here, that my husband is blanketly supportive and generous with his hard earned salary. This makes me even more obsessed with showcasing my “accomplishments” in writing and parenting, of which there are, basically, none. Neither activity is prone to produce finished products. Neither my art nor my children come with a daily production sheet.
Often, the fact of having parented, or having written, is the only available result of what feels like enormous effort. I would like to find this disconnection from productivity freeing, but actually I find it burdensome. Part of this blog, and my writing in general, is my attempt to find another yardstick, another means of measuring my worth and impact on the world. I long ago lost my idealism about the effectiveness of end products at my old job. I understood, there, that it was all pretend, that we created measurement systems to credit every action we took because it justified the system we had already created to do what we did, not because it was necessarily real. The end product assigned to any claim told me how that claim fit into the daily puzzle of my value as an employee, but it said nothing about the actual value of the communication, information, access, and money we would be giving or not giving to the claimant. These days, I work in a world that only cares about the actual values. As a parent it doesn’t matter if someone sees my patience with my kids, only that I actually have some. As a writer it doesn’t matter if what I write is prize-winning as much as it matters that I sat down and wrote today. I miss the pretend values – they were so much less messy, so easy to be sure I was doing it “right.” And I’m also immensely grateful that I could leave the pretend values behind. I might not know what I’m doing, and I might not always be able to measure the objective value of any one action, but finally, finally, I’m not working in code.