But I also worked a job I mostly hated because I knew, from the very start of our relationship, that it would likely fall to me to be the primary earner in our marriage. (I hate the word breadwinner—and no, it’s nothing against gluten.) I had to go to that job to catalyze my time and dignity into security and a paycheck to pay for our rent and groceries and bills. On the sparkly Spring morning of those tears, I remember being so deeply jealous that he got to stay home all day, follow his own whims, watch shitty cable programming. At the time, he was in what’s often referred to as the “figuring things out” stage of unemployment, in that his visiting professorship in Pennsylvania had ended, he’d moved to New York, and was casting about for another teaching job but also considering building bookcases for hire in the meantime.
We were sitting in the front seat of his double-parked pickup truck—in New York City, alternate-side parking necessitates a certain mobility to drawn-out marital arguments—when I levelly asked him, “Would you ever work a job you hated just to get benefits for us?” When he answered No, my face must’ve registered such rage and disappointment, that that’s what must’ve scared him—shamed him? shaken him?—into crying.
It was a miserable morning (but at least we didn’t get a parking ticket!) but also a clarifying one. I knew not to sit around and wait for him to go after any old job at any old company—so that I could then quit my job and do a little “figuring things out” of my own. Shortly thereafter, what started as building a bookcase as a favor for a friend turned into him building cabinets for money, and so it was that his new career was born.
Ten years later, Jamie’s annual income would be totally fine—if we lived anywhere other than in New York City. But this is where my industry is based and where his customer base has developed, and where, unfortunately, it’s not really enough for a family of three to live on. And so it is that every move I make in my career, I have to worry about salary and benefits. (It bears mentioning, I don’t know a single person who’s gone freelance with a family and signed up for Obamacare and thought they were getting both a good deal and good coverage.) Most of the time, I can be almost sanguine about it—Jamie’s self-employment affords at least one of us the freedom of scheduling for various school and childcare commitments—but at least four times a year, I get in a weighted-down semi rage/funk about it.
It feels like a lot to bear—especially when whichever place I am working is doing its annual hacking-of-headcount, bottom-line-boosting layoffs. To such an extent that I actively wonder about my friends whose partners are bankers or lawyers, “Why do they even bother working if they don’t have to?” If you don’t need the money or the Blue Cross Blue Shield, why do it? (Of course, I know people derive a lot of joy and self-worth from their vocations blah blah blah, but in my mind, all of that pales in comparison to being able to watch an episode of Law & Order—an old-school one, too, with Michael Moriarty and George Dzundza!—at 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.)
Concurrent with those four-times-a-year questions, I also get to wondering if this is how most men used to feel—back when women didn’t work outside the home. Did my dad feel this trapped by the snapping, hungry mouths mere inches behind him—my mom and me and my three sisters? (Eventually, my mom did get a job outside the home—working for my dad—that was mostly about stockpiling mad money for her Horchow catalog habit.) But my dad was never in the weeds with the day-to-day of running a family while also pursuing a paycheck. I have to work the job, get the benefits—and still make sure that the teacher-parent conferences are scheduled, that our daughter gets to the dentist, that she arrives at birthday parties on time with colorfully-wrapped, on-trend $15 presents in her hands. (To be fair to Jamie: Our daughter is 5, and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve trimmed her nails. Also, I almost never make her breakfast, and pack her lunch even less often.)
I do find comfort in other women in the same exact position as me—and no matter where I work, there are at least a few of us. We might chat around our desks, fantasizing about what we would do if we’d married someone rich or, failing that, at least someone with those primo supremo benefits that some non-profits offer their employees. Invariably, one of my fellow earners would go back to school. Or start a small side business (often involving flower arranging or cupcake baking). And my dream job, oddly, is to go work for Jamie in his wood shop, where I could learn a skill and work on something real and tangible (and probably splintery). And have a job that doesn’t gnaw at my soul.