The American Dream of Working Yourself to Death

A personal reflection on the challenge of achieving work-life balance while running a company.

By Jamie Millard

When you’re in labor, you learn how to surrender to your body. Your bones and muscles, designed by the millions of years and billions of women before you, taught your body how to stretch, pull and bend open. In that moment, you travel back in time and experience the history of womanhood.

Concept of production instantly redefined

Exhaustion doesn’t really capture the primal override that devours your body during pregnancy, labor and new motherhood. This deep, physical exhaustion leaves room for nothing else. It consumes all of you. There’s just no capacity for other forms of exhaustion like mental stress and anxiety. It’s awful, but also kind of liberating.

But then your body gets sewn back together, your belly folds back in on itself, your rivers of milk dry up, and slowly, you become less and less engulfed by that surprising freedom of physical exhaustion.

In the last three years, I’ve transitioned from a workaholic who prided herself on being attached to a laptop, to a working mom who feels like she’s neither working nor momming enough.

Every morning I wake up to a framed quote on my vanity that reads, “Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do.” This is obviously motivational merchandise purchased before having my toddler, because now I think it would say something like, “Dreams Don’t Work Unless Your Kid Goes To Bed On Time And Doesn’t Wake Up Till After 7am.”

Feeling this overwhelming sense of drowning from neither dreaming nor working enough, I recently took an entire week off for the mythical “staycation.” I was certain it would solve all of my problems. Work was pushing me in from all sides, like a little pile of garbage in a trash compactor. The space of an entire week off from work would let my brain reset. I would emerge from the end of that week with the cleanest house — like the kind of clean where even the depths of doom under the couch cushions would be vacuumed. I would take my toddler to the park every day. I would have time to actually feed her breakfast in the mornings.

After three days into my week off, I succumbed to my staycation failure. I had sent hundreds of emails, taken meetings and managed last-minute fires that weren’t really fires but seemed important — I guess. Sitting on my non-vacuumed couch, laptop in hand, I ended my out-of-office email messenger. It was becoming too embarrassing to instantly respond to emails after someone had just seen, “Hi! Thanks for your message but I’m out of the office for spring break!” I was under the spell of deadlines and couldn’t break the capitalism curse of a work ethic.

We’ve all seen the statistics about United States employees working far more hours per week, having no federal paid sick leave, no legally mandated leave, and culturally valuing money over pretty much everything else.

In a time when #selfcare dominates social media, it seems like Millennials might be attempting to fight the demands of modern work culture, which was established in the 1950s and has since increased productivity 400% per American worker. But the pendulum swing toward the gig economy is proving to be even more demanding and less humane. It’s becoming a culture of working yourself to death, as Jia Tolentino so aptly framed by saying, “It is more acceptable to applaud an individual for working themselves to death than to argue that an individual working themselves to death is evidence of a flawed economic system.”

That moment when I ended my out-of-office message during spring break has become my visceral rock-bottom metaphor for our flawed economic system. The next day when I woke up, I looked at my laptop, put it back down, and instead picked up my tennis shoes. I was going to go run. And I hate running. The kind of hate that comes from being that kid in middle school who constantly lied about chronic menstrual cramps to get out of the Friday mile run in PE.

But I wanted to once again remember that feeling during labor of surrendering to my body. To meditate in that familiar pain of my muscles and bones bending. To lose myself in the liberating freedom of being too physically exhausted to stress spiral.

So I’m training to run. I’m training myself to not pick up my laptop when I get home or when I wake up. I’m training my body to feel itself again. I’m training myself to understand the hours that the work demands and hire capacity accordingly.

In the next 20-30 years of my work, I hope to push myself to break past my internalization of the modern American dream of working myself (and those around me) to death. I’m training my brain to value a different kind of work, a different kind of dream.

A dream where:

  • Sabbaticals are practiced annually and accessible to the whole staff
  • High-level, high-paying part-time jobs are plentiful
  • Parents have time to bond with their newborns
  • Job-shares become commonplace
  • Flexibility drives all work culture

I want the future of work to be designed to serve humanity, not the gluttony of industrial greed. I’ve got my dream — I guess I better get to work making it happen.



Jamie Millard is the executive director of Pollen Midwest, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit.