I was pregnant with my first child and in graduate school when I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. As I listened to my classmates, mostly older mothers, talk at length about the sense of malaise they’d felt when their kids were young, I thought it would never happen to me. I would never fall prey to “the problem that has no name.” I was educated. I had chosen to become a mother, so certainly I would not be one of those women who ferried cub scouts all day and lay in bed at night wondering, “‘Is this all?'”
Fifteen years later, it’s my preoccupying worry.
A few years ago, I won a writing contest, and got a check for $50 in the mail. I didn’t want to cash it; I wanted to frame it. It’s the only time I’ve ever made money for my writing. It was both incredibly gratifying to be paid and a little bit depressing to see that the sum total of years of my work is less than my husband could make in an hour. Marriage isn’t a competition– I know that. But it still rankles.
A year or so later, I took a job teaching writing at a local college. I taught two classes twice a week, and paid a neighbor to watch my baby. One day, when I was avoiding the 60 essays that had piled up on my desk, I did the math: after I paid the babysitter, I made enough money from teaching to take myself out to lunch on the days I taught. Once I figured in all of the time I spent planning lessons and grading essays, I cleared about a dollar an hour. I could write a whole other post about the injustice of adjunct pay, but today I’m navel gazing.
Several months ago, I was sitting on the couch, trying to get something done for Segullah. Our toddlers were crawling on me, and I asked my husband to take them away so I could finish my work. “Your work?” he said. “You don’t earn a paycheck at Segullah. Segullah is a hobby.”
It’s true that I don’t earn a paycheck. I guess in his mind work is defined by compensation. It’s also true that his paycheck is what gives me free time to write. It’s what allows me to take the adjunct teaching jobs that pay (as I figured out when we did our taxes a few months later) not even enough for lunch on the days I teach, but enough for a soda.
In her fascinating book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about the phenomenon of how women, especially those women whose husbands are in careers with long hours and big paychecks, stop making choices to keep them engaged in the workplace even before they have children. I saw this in the choices I made– I romanticized the idea of staying home with a large family, and felt that it was the “right” thing for me to do, and would be worth whatever sacrifices I made.
But I didn’t know how hard it would be not to live through my children, to make their successes my success (and their failures my failure). I didn’t know how hard it would be, after working from the time I was fourteen years old, to be dependent on someone else’s paycheck, and to know that even if I went back to work full-time today, I would make a tiny fraction of what my husband does. I know that our earning power shouldn’t determine our self-worth, but part of me still thinks that making my own money would legitimize me in some way.
Friedan says, “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.” My husband is blessed to feel incredibly fulfilled by his career. He saves lives and makes a generous salary. The old ladies in the ward bring treats by the house to thank him for taking care of their husbands. I love my creative work as a writer (and yes, I will defend the fact that it is work, even if it is unpaid), but I feel huge amounts of guilt that I’m not able to devote the attention to it that I should, that the ideas I have for novels I want to write remain unwritten as the years pass. I worry that as a mom of six, I have leaned so far out that leaning in won’t ever be possible again. I’m afraid I might fall flat on my face. However, when Sandberg talks about the process of writing Lean In she says, “Writing this book is what I would do if I were not afraid.” She embraced her fears, and I shouldn’t expect any less of myself.
My husband would never want to feel that he’s holding me back, but he’s never had to adjust his professional goals to accommodate mine, so he doesn’t really get it. So I’m turning to you. Sandberg says, “The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves. Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.” She also says, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” You may never want to write a novel, but you may want to start a small business. You may struggle with feeling like an equal partner to your spouse when you don’t have the same earning potential. Maybe you leaned out to support a spouse that is no longer your partner, and you’re dealing with the financial ramifications. Maybe you feel entirely fulfilled by your choices and you don’t understand where all of my angst is coming from.
How can we support each other better, make things easier for each other? What is your definition of work and how is it related to financial compensation? What advice would you give to your twenty-year-old self about career and family life?
Kat Sturman is the pen name of a Segullah staff member. She has a bunch of kids, a bunch of aspirations, and a bunch of people she’d rather not offend.