Sunday, May 19, 2013


I am supposed to be reading that book "Leaning In" for book club. I will read it--I just haven't gotten around to it yet. I've been avoiding weighing in on this whole issue, because the thing that annoys me the most about this whole so-called "debate" about women working outside the home is not the usual gripe; it's not about gender roles or empowerment. I've been avoiding it, but then I woke up early (like always) and started to read the Sunday paper before heading out to the gym (like always). I started reading an editorial about how this whole debate has been framed in the wrong way, because we are asking the wrong questions. This is going to be great! I thought. But no, the question we apparently should be asking is this:

Are you deriving joy from your job or your decision to stay at home? What makes you feel most fulfilled as a person?

And then I found myself doing that thing called "rage quitting" as I sat there muttering to myself while my entire family slept peacefully upstairs.

This whole debate is such an upper-middle class load of bullshit.

I say this as someone who has found herself living an upper-middle class life herself, a life she will probably never really feel comfortable in nor understand.

Life is not about deriving joy, feeling satisfied, or getting to do what you've always dreamed of doing. It's great if you have that privilege. But this article stated that the best way to be a parent is to show your children that you are fulfilled.

So what about everyone else? What about the people who work outside the home because that is the only option? Because shit costs money, and even if it's hard and even if it's meaningful and even if it's what you'd rather be doing, no one is paying anyone to stay at home with their own children? What about the people who stay home because they can't find jobs, or because they can't find jobs that pay enough to justify the child care expenses? What about those who need to care for aging parents or disabled spouses? What about the people who, GASP, work jobs they don't even LIKE, for bosses they can't stand, in less than ideal working conditions?

Are these people worse parents than the tiny percentage of folks who are out there living the dream while they pay someone else to clean their house and cook their food?

I'm tired of it. We live in a society that has been absolutely crushed by a horrible economic crisis. And then we pull out this tripe where we tell our kids they can do anything they want to do--we fill their heads with this so often and so early that they begin to see themselves as failures if that's not how their lives turn out. We talk about following your passion and breaking the glass ceiling and we listen to millionaires, whether they are women or men, tell ordinary people how they should live their lives as if those people have a freaking clue.

Growing up, with a father who was a teacher and a mother who stayed home except when she worked minimum wage jobs because she had to, I learned this lesson: I was being raised to be a productive member of society. That was the goal, according to my mother. The GOAL IN LIFE was to not feel entitled, to use my talents to do something useful if I had the chance, but to never assume that I was entitled to that chance. I was expected to get good grades because that was my WORK. Also, I began working when I was 11. Working for MONEY. In high school I used that money to buy my own clothes and help my mom pay the light bill. I understood that one of the greatest manifestations of parental love was watching your parent go to a low-paying job because she needed to feed you.

Most people have jobs, not careers. Most people need to work--for MONEY--for decades and decades. Most people do not go to college at all, much less graduate school or medical school or law school for crissakes. For many people, retirement is a a dream, not a reality. And yet we are steeped in this rhetoric that assumes that no one is happy just HAVING A JOB, because everyone wants to be the boss man or everyone's got that fire in her belly or everyone is trying to figure out how to cure cancer or be a rock star.

I used to love hearing my mother's mother and my father's father talk about their jobs. My grandmother was a legal secretary for many years, when suburban women weren't supposed to work and they definitely weren't supposed to be DIVORCED. I loved hearing her talk about dreaming in shorthand, riding the train, planning her boss's schedule, seeing the lake from her desk, matching her clip-on earrings to her necklace every day. My grandfather was in insurance, but I never once heard him talk about that aspect of his job. He talked about the social stuff--drinking with clients, going to steak houses, smoking cigars in historic buildings. So on the one hand, I learned that the TASKS of working could be the fulfilling and interesting part--learning to write in code, doing someone else's bidding--and on the other, that part of working was the people associated with it, and the job itself was less important than the access it gave you to the rest of your life.

So if your favorite part of your job is the gym at the office and the commute (looking in the mirror), you are not a bad parent. If your favorite part of your job is getting the hell out of there and going to have a beer with your co-workers afterwards and bitching about your boss, you are not a bad parent. If your favorite part of your job is COMING HOME, so what? If your favorite part of staying home with the kids is when they leave and you have the house to yourself, who cares? Who are we kidding? Do we think that housework is fulfilling all the time? That raising children is just joy after joy? There is drudgery in everything, and that doesn't make things meaningless. For most people, satisfaction comes from small moments of grace and insight--both at home and at work--amidst the mundane and the chaotic.

I have built this supposedly interesting career for myself. At one point, I was even very well-known in some circles. I have done fulfilling work--I have been a part of the low-paid advocacy groups that successfully forced financial institutions to change their abusive lending patterns years before anyone else (including liberal politicians) admitted there was a problem. I have been LUCKY, in addition to hard-working. I fell into this career. I answered an ad IN A NEWSPAPER for a job that sounded interesting, knowing nothing about the work I would be doing. I was hired because they thought I wrote an excellent cover letter, everyone liked me, and the senior staff was about to go on vacation, so they figured they would hire me. Thus began my life in policy research and financial services at age 23. I never saw it coming, nor planned for it.

I'm going to take a deep breath here and admit something. I'm not sure that I'm more FULFILLED because I have had a chance to do this big-thinking work. I have loved other jobs, some of them irrationally. I was a secretary for the summer when I was 19, working for the single most dysfunctional office you could imagine. Seriously, I could write a book about the sexism and the racism and the crazy shit that happened there. I used a radio to tell electricians what jobs needed doing, I did a lot of paperwork, and in general I managed everything while our boss was out golfing. At the end of every insane day, I felt...FULFILLED. I felt like I had done a lot of things, that loose ends had been tied up, that my day had been busy and interesting and tiring. I held that job because the woman who worked it before me was retiring--after 20 years. She worked for those crazy people for 20 years, doing a job that wouldn't affect anyone else outside of the office, and you know what? She missed it.

When I was 18 I worked at a bookstore. I made $5 an hour. I hated aspects of that job, including standing up for 8 hours and dealing with customers. I loved other things, like working in this space literally called "the cage," where I dealt with special orders in a tiny claustrophobic room and got to find out things like who had a penchant for German poetry or soft porn. One day, while I was working the register, a pregnant woman came over and put "What to Expect When You're Expecting" on the counter. I told her to wait a minute. I walked over to the overstock section and brought back the exact same book, with a hole punched in the cover to mark it as overstock. I said "this is the same book, but it's $5, and that one is $25. You're going to have a baby. You should get the cheap one." She was very grateful to me. The man behind her, all dressed up in suit and tie and reeking of cigar smoke and money, chastised me: "Honey, you need to earn that money they're paying you! Your job is to make the company money, not help pregnant ladies. You're a pretty girl but you have a lot to learn." Then, this dude asked for a copy of the Tonya Harding Penthouse edition that had just come out that week. I gave it to him (they were kept behind the counter and creepy guys always came into MY line to ask for porn, as opposed to the lines of my male co-workers) in a see-through plastic bag. I lied to his face and told him we were out of paper bags. He left looking embarrassed, trying to hide the magazine from people as he walked. I took my break soon after, and blew an hour's worth of wages on an iced coffee with whipped cream.

It's been 19 years, and that 15 minutes from pregnant lady to coffee stands out as maybe the finest moment of job satisfaction that I've ever had.

Sometimes, people work because they have to or because they want to, and sometimes people work because they wouldn't know what else to do. In my family, we could alter our lives so that one of us could stay home with the kids. That one of us would probably be Gabe, because he would enjoy staying home more than I would. But this is probably never going to happen--because we don't know how to not have jobs. We are both terrified of not working, because no matter our actual situation, we will always feel one step away from the poorhouse. Gabe will always be the guy who we use to get the kids to eat. We do not say that kids are starving in far off locations or in other neighborhoods of the city. We say, you know, a lot of people grow up HUNGRY, and then Gabe glares at them from across the table and eats all of the rest of their food whether he is hungry or not. I will always be the kid who sent money home to her mom in college rather than the other way around. I am that mom who rips a ridiculously long article out of the paper about strawberry-pickers and tells my daughter to read it, so that she understands that food shouldn't be wasted not just because some people don't have access to it (and those people could even be you sometime) but because people work their asses off producing that food.

We Americans seem so convinced that happiness comes through personal fulfillment. We consider ourselves enlightened if we think that happiness comes from serving others. Sometimes--most of the time--happiness comes from a decision to be happy as you live as a hard-working person in the world. Every survey that has ever been done on happiness shows that we are actually less happy (read: FULFILLED) than people in many developing countries. It's as if we have so many examples of happiness and fulfillment that are so extreme--celebrity culture, millionaire mother CEOs--that we have forgotten how to be happy with regular life.

This can be really problematic, even for very privileged people. People who want to be lawyers because of the exciting stuff they see on TV can become really disillusioned by the actual job itself, with the paperwork and the ridiculous hours. My mom once dated an obstetrician who thought delivering babies was boring, tedious. I can't count the number of managers I've met who lament the fact that they are so busy managing that they don't have time to do the work that they used to enjoy.

If everyone is chasing a fantasy, the reality of that fantasy can be a crushing blow even once it is achieved.

I hate being asked "where do you see yourself in 5 years" by managers or prospective employers. I always want to say: "gainfully employed, healthy and with a roof over my head," but I know I am supposed to recite some line about management or expanding my skill set or something. I'm supposed to be obsessed with getting MORE out of my job/career; I'm supposed to hate working for others as opposed to being my own boss; I'm supposed to look for ways to claw my way to the top.


Do you know when I have felt most proud of myself as a working mother?

I have never been prouder of myself than when I was going through chemo, after having had two breast surgeries. Yes, I went to work, and did very well, actually, earning a bonus and a raise that hellish year. Yes, I mothered my kids, though we had lots of help with things like meals. But the moments when I was proudest were those when I knew what was happening in my body--I knew that the derivative of mustard gas, combined with the drug so toxic it stopped some people's hearts, had destroyed my ovaries, my hair, my mucous membranes, my digestive system and my immunity. I felt proudest when I put one foot in front of the other and made it to the goddamn train. During my performance review that year, my manager asked me what I wanted to be doing in five years. I knew she wouldn't take it the wrong way when I said:

"I want to still be here."

So if you have the opportunity to follow your passion, whether that means staying home with kids or starting a charity or working for yourself or being an artist or a plumber or a CEO, good for you. But if you are just plugging along, as most people are, GOOD FOR YOU TOO. There's nothing wrong with that. Your worth as a person, as a woman, as a parent, should not be derived from which side of an elitist debate you hail from, because your situation might change, and you will still be the same person, with the same amount of worth.

People always ask me when I will quit my day job to become a writer. I always say that I can't imagine doing that. Again, I fear not having a paying job, with a regular paycheck and health insurance, and that fact does not make me a lesser person than you. But there is another reason I would never do that. I like having a separation between my work and my passion. To me, work is work. Writing is NOT work. I know I could change a lot of things and find sponsors and advertisers and get paid to write this blog or something else. Kudos to my friends who do that. I just don't want to do this for anyone else. I want to do this the way I want to do it, all the time. I don't want to ever have to write because I have to or about something specific or by Tuesday at noon. I do that with my job. I see my husband, a guy who built a career in IT out of his hobby, lament the time he used to spend tinkering on computers for fun. I listen to the wives of carpenters talk about how he never does any work around their own house. I hear the words of my grandmother, the legal secretary who loved wearing spectators and costume jewelry and walking around among the masses in Chicago at rush hour, discuss her various arts. She could do this amazing embroidery, sewing, knitting; she made these rag rugs that no one else I know could make, even when her eyesight was practically gone. These are the kinds of rugs that last forever and could sell for a decent amount of money. She lived on a fixed income in a subsidized retirement community and struggled to pay for medications and utilities. Couldn't she sell those rugs, couldn't she earn a little money from all the things she made?

"Well, yes I could, honey. But then it would be WORK. I do this for the love."

1 comment:

  1. The moment I have a deadline or expectation, I get writer's block. :(

    I was always grateful that Patrick never really got the musical break he was searching for. And there were many, many times he was close. I feared that his singing for the love of music would become what you wrote: singing to pay the bills. A JOB. I know that this makes me somewhat selfish, but it is what it is.