Learning Curve

Yesterday, I wrote, My marriage is fine. Things are fine. When I say things are fine, I mean, my life is fine. My job is fine. I am fine. And that’s all true. Except for when they’re not.

There was a time last year, when it seemed like things weren’t going to be fine. Marriage is hard when you are working long hours at a soul crushing job and your husband is underemployed. Life is hard when you are working long hours at a soul crushing job and your husband is underemployed. I started to forget the ways that Robert and I are different and the ways we are the same. I started to feel guilty for making more money than he did. Not because I felt like I was doing something wrong, but because I thought maybe he was, and isn’t that a terrible thing to think about the person you love the very most? Yes, it is. I started fantasizing about getting pregnant. Not because we were ready for a kid or even wanted a kid, but because I thought maybe a nice long maternity leave would be a good way to escape my job for a few months away from my job, and isn’t that a terrible reason to bring a child into the world? Yes, it is. These conversations, though, the ones I had with myself about how it would all go down ended up being a valuable exercise, though, because it forced me out of the pattern of magical thinking I’d been clinging to for years: the idea that I could do what I always wanted and planned to do (have some kids, work) and simultaneously do what I felt like I should do (have some kids, not work).

Before and during law school, the possibilities for being a working mom appeared plentiful. For example, in law school, I wanted to be a public defender. I knew for a fact that the public defenders in the office I interned at in Cook County enjoyed very reasonable schedules, in some cases leaving work less than an hour after the last bell might ring at the public schools in the area, well before a middle or high schooler would finish up with practice, or rehearsal, or loitering at the mall with their friends. After law school, I realized that a public defender’s salary might pay mine and Robert’s expenses, if we scaled way back, took advantage of federal loan forgiveness programs, and moved in with roommates. I realized that not all departments of the PD enjoyed such flexible schedules and that I would have zero control over which department I’d start out in, or even where I’d end up. I realized that leaving the office at 3:30 or 4:00 isn’t that great of a perk for the first five years of a kid’s life. Most significantly, I realized that the Cook County wasn’t hiring and that employees faced massive budget-based layoffs every year.

That’s just one example of the learning process I went through when I started contemplating how family life might actually work-post law school. There are lots of others.  For example, I always thought I would be an excellent professor. Then I could have summers and holidays off! Turns out, it’s tough to land an academic position and if you really want it, you have to open yourself up to moving, well, anywhere. And, again, summers and holidays off are good, but you’re still going to have to shell out for childcare for years before your kid(s) go to school. Oh, and I still had years ahead of me to get the experience I’d need to even qualify for a professorship.

A final example: In law school, I entertained the idea of hanging my own shingle. I’d run an office out of my home, and work on cases when I had time. After law school, I realized I had no clients, no skills, no space for an office, and running your own practice also means paying for your own health insurance. It’s not a realistic for a freshly minted JD in a saturated legal market to support a family.

Look, I know there are lots of people who work all of these jobs and lots of them have kids. I’m not saying it’s impossible, or even all that difficult. I’m just saying that it’s not as simple for a new attorney to find a flexible, family friendly job as I thought it would be. Family friendly, as the phrase is used in the workplace today, doesn’t mean what I thought it did. I had options, but they weren’t endless, and none of them were easy. Especially as a woman.

You see, my law school plans — no, all my plans, ever — were shaped around the idea that after I got married (which of course I would do), my income would be extra. Surplus. We certainly wouldn’t need it to eat, or pay rent. What craziness possessed me, a life-long high achiever who worked pretty much continuously since I’ve been of legal age, to think I wouldn’t need to support myself? Well, I grew up Mormon. I grew up in the suburbs. Men worked. Women didn’t, or if they did, it was because they wanted to. I knew that wasn’t the only life possible, hell, I knew it wasn’t even the life I wanted, but those images of traditional gender roles are powerful, and weirdly comforting, even while they are limiting. They seep in and influence every choice you’ll ever make. It’s easy to grow up a middle class Mormon woman in America and think that your job is to make yourself and your family happy, and to make the world a better place. Survival isn’t part of the equation, because that’s something that just happens on its own.

All of this, this background, these plans for self-realization and making the world a better place, they are the reason it hit me like a ton of bricks when I found myself in a job I hated and realized that I, just as much as Robert, was responsible for financially supporting us. For building the life we wanted. For providing. I realized that this weight, the one that men and women I never thought of have born for centuries, it’s heavy.

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3 Responses to Learning Curve

  1. Di says:

    I love and identify with this post so much.

    For about a year, my husband was working on a startup and was making zero money. Somehow I managed not to internalize the “my income is surplus” idea, despite growing up in an area and family where that was the case. I started thinking resentful thoughts toward my husband and really had to work hard to remember that I had consented to his quitting the paying job. We were barely making our bills with my salary alone.

    I have never wanted to be a stay-at-home-mother, so had planned on either being a full or part breadwinner. Unfortunately $XX,XXX (shitty journalist salary) seems like a massive amount of money when you are a stupid 19-year-old. It goes pretty quickly with a mortgage and two adults to support. I’ve been feeling more and more weighted down recently by my choice of career and wondering if/when/in what I should go back to school.

    Thanks for writing this. Sometimes it’s just helpful to know other people feel similarly.

  2. Sandy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It definitely helps to know that other people are in similar situations, especially when it seems like all of the women around me who work don’t really *have* to work. (Of course, I understand that’s just my perspective, and I have no idea about other people’s financial situations, but that’s what it feels like. I often had to remind myself that I chose my profession, that I chose my husband, that I consented to (and encouraged!) all of his career decisions knowing full well they would put a lot of responsibility on me. It also helps me to remember that no life is perfect, and there’s virtually no job/relationship situation that wouldn’t have its attendant problems.

    Also, I think it’s really interesting that you feel weighed down having chosen a relatively non-lucrative career (journalism), when I feel just as weighed down by the fact that I chose what is potentially a very lucrative career (law) because it makes me feel the weight of my own responsibility even more. I guess that just goes to show even more that no life is perfect. Good luck in deciding if/when you’ll go back to school and what you’ll study. That sounds scary, but also super exciting. (

  3. Cammila says:

    Hey, I just wanted to generally thank you for keeping up such a great blog. More articulate, thoughtful, funny feminists should blog about marriage, especially concerning issues that are somehow still frequently absent from regular discourse — like religion, our own feminist perspectives and where they come from, finances, and all the other nitty gritty stuff. I’ve been really getting on myself to post more about marriage and parenthood in blended family. I’ll post more if you promise to do post more too! 😉

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