Women, Work, & Identity in a Time of Contraction

Growing up, my mother would look over me pensively saying, “You’re such a smart girl. You’re going to have to make choices.” Meaning family or work, seeming emphasis on the unworkability of those choices. “Women have been completely conscripted into the workforce,” my father would muse one second adding “but they should have their own money” the next. It was the early eighties. We’d just moved from rural Illinois to suburban St. Louis in the throws of similar, if less severe, economic downturn. My parents wanted the best for me but feared the worst. Having watched their own mothers stranded at home raising large families on tiny allowances, they believed in family but knew that family was an economy unto itself. And a player with no cards carried certain risks.

July 2009. For the second time in a year, I was about to lose my job. A recent MFA grad in a small southern town, I’d opted out of adjunct teaching after one grinding semester of commuting between universities, trying to cobble together enough comp courses to make a living. I liked my students but couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling of being exploited—not to mention exhausted. A lecture I saw by Louis Menand suggesting that a swollen pool of graduate students were admitted to teach comp classes that more experienced faculty wouldn’t touch confirmed this feeling. Plus, my husband was a fellow grad student, and the 3,000 per class I was making (sans benefits) had us living perilously close to the poverty line. Did I mention that we’d somehow obtained a house with a $1,600 a month mortgage during the preceding period of Wild-West, crazy-loose loans?

When the human resources person arrived at my office door, sweaty and shaking, gesturing awkwardly towards the empty office adjacent to us, I knew what was up. Engaged more or less as an event planner, I’d come to notice a disturbing pattern. A season of extreme hours in extreme circumstances—the cordials, cocktails and grueling heat, million dollar deals with mountain backdrops, heiresses and celebrities mixing casually among the crowd on lawns lusher than most of us care to know about—and then, the lull. During the lull someone usually looked around and noticed that not everyone was terribly busy. After a season of unblinking twelve hours days, nights, weekends, or whatever it took, suddenly things were relatively calm. People came in at 9:30 left a little after 5:00. Interns, on break from school, wandered hopefully through the halls making the place seem positively over-staffed. It was in such a season (both times), that I found myself suddenly expendable, in a job that was going to be not eliminated, but absorbed. One which, when things improved in a few years, might be opened once again.

I’d learned to accept my now familiar fate with some measure of grace. I was a writer, and the unemployment benefits, if nothing else, provided a brief writing sabbatical while I looked for other work. Having been raised by a bank secretary mother and a first-generation college father, freshly middle class, I’d been encouraged to pursue my artistic dreams. “This will be the first generation of the family not to be wage slaves!” my father had said brightly on many occasions. Several years into the profession, in that notorious period between the degree and the elusive first-book publication, things were looking a little grim.

I’d had difficulty accepting the waitressing or part-time administrative jobs many of my fellow classmates seemed to adopt with a measure of pride. I sensed that the drinking and odd hours made them feel more like writers, it made me feel like a servant. Someone who’d gone to the extreme trouble to better her circumstances (taking on a not insubstantial amount of loans in the process) only to wind up in the same situation as her mother or grandmother. Not that this was a horrible fate, it simply didn’t feel like the middle-class progress we’d been promised. In addition, I realized I’d gotten myself in the predicament of facing increasing economic dependence on my social scientist husband. Given that the marriage was far more progressive than most of the office environments I’d worked in, this was not necessarily a problem. But I did have a personal tendency to dissolve into my relationships (what a girl!) and worried about my ability to maintain any independence or non-marital identity were I to stay home to write/raise the kids once finances allowed. What would be the difference between stay-at-home writer and hobbyist housewife in the eyes of the infinitely credentialed academics I generally rubbed elbows with? I’d been taught to think of work as a path to fulfillment, self-improvement and independence rather than exploitation, and desperately wanted to believe.

My first two years of work post-MFA have been informative to say the least. I really have no idea what will become of me. Perhaps I’ll get a fellowship, finish a book, and find gainful employment on a faculty somewhere. Perhaps I’ll get pregnant and never work again. This seems a little doubtful given my innate drive and need for some level of worldly participation and recognition. Though both my father and husband swear that staying home full-time would still not make me a Stepford-wife soccer mom. Categories are often in the service of the people that use them—the employers who tell you that your job is being absorbed rather than eliminated, feminists who insist on work as a panacea of liberation in women’s lives when in reality, except for the very lucky and the very few, it can be more exploitative and laden with sexist attitudes than healthy marriages which might subsidize artistic, social, or some other soul-enhancing work.

I still long for an identity in the world and excessive financial dependence on a spouse does concern me. Many women are clearly facing similar crises; some social scientists have even taken to claiming that women are clearly happier at home! Staying home for a driven, highly educated woman—the sort who most likely met her husband on the job or in grad school under the premise of forging a shared life on equal professional footing—is always a serious compromise that takes a toll on the entire family. Though given my recent experience, it seems a better bet than counting on an employer. The identities that I imagined to be liberating and aspirational in my late teens and early twenties have turned out to be exploitative in ways I couldn’t have really imagined (though plenty of people tried to warn me). The ‘loyalty up, loyalty down’ my father describes from his early days at work has shifted to ‘loyalty up…screw you.’ At least for those without some serious professional leverage. This isn’t to say that I’m giving up on work, but, like many in my generation, I’ll never think of it in the same way again.