Who Decides What Is “Value-Added?”

For whatever reasons having to do with time but also interest, I am the one in our family who sits down and pays the bills. I like doing it. I get a feeling of satisfaction from being able to pay the bills, a sense of security and peace of mind, however ephemeral, that we were able to cover our expenses for another month. So perhaps that explains the somewhat-embarrassing and totally obvious revelation that crossed my mind recently—a complete sentence which I almost, but thankfully did not, say out loud—“We are not making any money on this venture.”

By this venture I suppose I meant “our life right now,” in sum. Living in Washington D.C., in the District so that it’s easier for us to get around and my partner can (and does) often bike to work. Having and raising a child, and my staying-at-home for the moment as we adjust to all the new responsibilities and tasks of parenting. As happens to everyone in some way at some point, we’ve also had or will soon have a series of additional complications and expenses this year–unexpected hospitalizations for our kid, a cross-country move, legal fees for same-sex co-parent adoption, dental expenses for me, a much-needed new computer, and so on. We are so not making any money on this whole “life” venture at the moment.

Maybe that’s why the phrase “value-added” got stuck in my head earlier this week. I’ve overheard it a bunch, on the radio and I’m not sure where all else, but it’s out there, this phrase. What does it really mean? Who decides what has value? In our home, we mostly do, though it’s far too easy for other people’s opinions, values, judgments, and commentary to influence our own thinking. We’re human, after all, we are part of communities that we value and learn from, are inspired by and sometimes stressed out by (as in, we “should” think about moving into a bigger place soon, or “really we should have our kid in daycare for socialization and optimal learning” and so on and on). I’m as susceptible as anyone to this stuff—perhaps more than most. So I find myself this week stewing on this phrase “value-added,” mulling it over in my mind, trying to get a handle once again on who’s in charge around here. Am I deciding what has value in my life, or am I framing and highlighting (and judging and doubting) particular aspects of my life because others have impressed upon me that that’s what has (or doesn’t have) the most value?

My grandfather used to pick me up at my mom’s house when I was little girl and and say that he had $20. Then he’d ask me: “Should we buy a hamburger with it, or put it in your college savings account?” I was six or seven years old. I always knew what the right answer was, and also that we’d probably get to stop at McDonald’s too. I loved, loved, loved going to McDonald’s when I was a kid for “2 cheeseburgers, please, small fries, and what’s your special shake?” Back then, McDonald’s had a different “special shake” flavor every day–banana and peanut butter were my favorites, egg nog at Christmastime. Back then, knowing about their special shake, having that routine with my grandparents, and being able to choose for myself: that was what I valued.

These days are not all that different. Though I’m no longer a McDonald’s regular, I still value knowing my favorite things at neighborhood establishments, knowing the storekeepers, knowing my neighbors, being a part of a community. I still value having a routine and I still value being able to choose for myself. I am certainly grateful to be able to stay home with our Little Bean, even though I am truly exhausted some days and I do wonder if it’s really worth it. Does it really matter if I’m the one who reads to her, plays with her, changes her diaper or cleans up her mealtime messes? As she becomes more and more self-assured, I can see already that it does matter, that we are teaching her, in the ways we’ve best figured out that are doable for us, that she can trust us and trust the world, at least the world she’s interacted with so far.

I am fascinated, this week, by the way economic terms infiltrate our day-to-day language. Just in this post, I see the words and ideas of “value,” “venture,” “trust,” “cost,” “product” and “outcome” over and over again, words that we use for different purposes depending on the context. Has all this double entendre, um, benefitted us (pun intended) or muddied the genuineness of our language? Do we know what we mean when we speak anymore, even in our own heads? Do we know what we value without anyone else’s…assessment?

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