How did I wind up here? --Middle aged, that is, and out of work?
Don't get me wrong: in one sense, I have more work than I can possibly do (especially while recuperating from knee surgery). Running a household is w-o-r-k, and no end to it. Important work at that.
But once upon a time I had a career. It had its ups and downs, but for the most part it was a solid, respectable career, and it came with a healthy 401K, and I could look forward to years of steady employment and watching that 401K grow with my matching employer donations. And then this thing happened: I had a baby. I took a year off to watch her grow, because my employer was very lenient and understanding about that, and after a year I planned to come back. But my employer also let me know that when I did come back, I'd be doing something less interesting -- a job that looked suspiciously like the work I had been doing at the very beginning of my career, twenty years earlier. I didn't much like that prospect, and I was getting to enjoy this mom thing. So after much anguish, I decided to ask for another year's leave -- immediately granted, that should have told me the gig was up right there -- and see how well I could do by freelance writing.
Which, after a slow beginning, was pretty well. One year I made $30,000 as a freelancer, a number I cite not because it's so staggering (it was just over a third of my former salary, and no benefits), but because I was able to make that much money without even thinking about it. The kinds of articles the women's magazines wanted back then were a piece of cake for someone like me: I was accustomed to working on deadline and turning out accurate prose on topics much more complicated than "how to buy a cellphone." I was making money and hardly realizing I was working. My husband and I were living within our means, which meant we did not live in a fashionable part of town, but we liked where we lived and we liked our small house, and things were fine.
Then came kid number two -- a surprise, but a delightful one, and then I took some time off to be a mom to her full-time, and then, somehow, getting back in the saddle wasn't so easy. By this time, my employer and I had pretty much parted company, in a listless "see ya later" kind of way. I had tried to find ways to fit in around my old shop on a part-time basis, but I'd met a brick wall. That hurt, but I decided it was okay; pumped up on my recent $30,000-in-one-year experience and kept afloat by my husband's medical insurance, I figured I could do just fine, and I was liking my freedom. But something was happening to the little niche of the magazine world where I had found a home: the appetite for anything that looked remotely like fact-based journalism was evaporating. What was taking its place was celebrity interviews and, increasingly, "psychological" articles citing "experts" that purported to give the final word on spanking (or not), developing empathy, the Power of Intuition... puff pieces that made me feel fraudulent writing them because I knew how little actual information they contained. The end came one day at Barnes and Noble, when I sat down for a cup of coffee and read an entire article in a women's magazine before realizing I had written it.
For several months, I floundered, and then an idea I had rejected as uninteresting suddenly began to look interesting after all, and whaddya know, I turned it into a book proposal and sold it. The day I got the word from my agent about the deal I came out of my office screaming and pumping my fists. "What is it, mom?" asked my oldest, who was then about six.
"MOM'S BACK IN THE GAME, BABY!" I yelled, and we all danced around, even though the kids didn't really know what the fuss was about. Oh, God, what a sweet moment: I was a mom, AND I had a career, on my own terms. Life rocked.
Which brings us to the present: the book is out, it's selling in respectable numbers, the checks from the publisher have come in (all but one, and it won't be large, and it will be months and months from now before I see it).. and, since my book (like most books) has not hit the best-seller list, I know that this is pretty much all the money I will ever see from it. Even with a nice advance, which I got, the money goes. It gets spent on doctor's office co-pays and kids' clothes and summer camp and plumbing disasters and income taxes. My huge $150,000 advance for this book (in the writing world, that's considered very nice -- million dollar advances are the ones you hear about but most writers never see that kind of money) now consists of about $4,000 tucked away in a savings account. I am one major car repair bill away from that most hateful position to be in: totally dependent on my husband's money. (And I don't care how egalitarian your marriage is, both partners KNOW who is bringing in the bucks. Nobody has to say a thing.)
So: here I am, a 51-year-old journalist with tons of experience and awards and honors from Back in the Day (that 1987 Pulitzer finalist thing sounds quaint now, it was so long ago) who, if I were to show up at my old job now, might score a nice lunch with an editor but they know and I know I ain't getting hired back there. I am Not Needed; they are paying people my age to go away these days, because newspapers are never profitable enough for Wall Street, and Wall Street calls the shots these days. (I remember the old days when newspapers were not supposed to be "profit centers," when they used their unique positions as the only business in our society afforded constitutional protection to advance agendas bigger than making money. But that was a long time ago.) There's always the possibility of another book -- if I can think of something marketable, which is a big if; there's magazine work, if I can bring myself to write the kind of article they want these days, which is so forgettable even I forget I've done it. I could get a part-time retail job to bring in some cash, and give up on using the skills I worked so long and hard to acquire. I could quit complaining and settle into Middle-Aged Momhood, as so many women before me have done.
My only problem is that I have this burning desire to be Useful. I have things I want to say, skills I want to pass on. How to do this? It's one thing when you're 21 and have no responsibilities and nothing but time on your hands, and even though the path before you is steep there's something exciting about tackling it. It's another when you're 51 and there are college tuitions looming in your future -- and, what's worse, the last 10 years of your working life have been largely spent doing work that our society does not value. At 21, you're a hot young find; at 51, you're just a mom. You exited the fast track and now there are no "on" ramps. And I look around me and see dozens of women my age, in a similar position to me, scrambling for piecework -- women with advanced degrees, women with priceless experience, women with superior intellects.
And I think: how wasteful can this society afford to be?
Mmo : october 2006