Earning My Keep

Oh, the luxury of being ignorant and sanctimonious! Where to start with the umbrage? There are so many different things wrong with Elizabeth Wurtzel’s article (which was based on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article on why women still can’t have it all) but I’ll start with the assumption that:

‘If you can’t pay your own rent, you’re not an adult.”

What about the approximately 50% of the world’s labor that’s uncompensated? I’d l like to know what’s so infantile about providing child care, providing elder care, providing volunteer work to keep families and communities chugging along?  (I’m not going to get into the mommy wars about what’s best for kids; I’m agnostic on that point, having tried all possible approaches myself.) But let’s look at the economics of being one of those not 100 percent financially self-supporting women Elizabeth Wurtzel dismisses, ridiculously, as Chanel shopping throwbacks:

Let’s please be serious grown-ups: Real feminists don’t depend on men. Real feminists earn a living, have money, and a means of their own.

Hmmm… Thanks, Liz! I like your one size-fits-all recipe for a worthy life! I guess I’m just a pampered parasite who should know better. Even so, I can’t help wondering if some other folks have ever depended just a tad – financially, I mean, maybe even a smidge parasitically —  on me.

There were years when I was under- or non-employed, yet I’ve always done my economic part. Not only the hours of childcare and cleaning, shopping and cooking. That’s just shooting fish in a barrel. (And yes, sue me, I had some help with these tasks, too.) I’m thinking of the committees and boards and fundraisers that relied on my flexible, unpaid labor. I’m thinking of all the other parents’ kids for whom I provided childcare when they were stuck in a pinch (And, yes, the shoe has been on the other foot many times as a working mother. I’m not complaining.) I’m thinking of the 1:1 ratio of teacher prep to class time and the endless hours of parent counseling and hand-holding I performed that was never reflected in my salary as an early childhood educator and school director.

And I’m thinking of the American companies whose bottom line I’ve helped to boost: those stupid Sally Foster wrapping paper sales at the kids’ school where I was not only propping up the public school system’s inadequate budgets – which rely unabashedly on vigorous infusions of private philanthropy (keeping taxes low so you can go out and earn your independence!) –  but also, inadvertently, shilling for the goddamned wrapping paper company! (How many years have I badgered neighbors and family members to buy those crappy lifestyle products! A motion-activated daisy paperweight for that special teacher in your life? A box of assorted gift tags in festive dolphin and shark shapes. A set of attractive religious votive candles. For years I felt like a chain letter harrasser. A child in Mozambique will die if you don’t pass this letter on to ten people/buy my shitty merchandise in 12 hours.)

Anyway, I digress. I’m also thinking of the untold hours of counseling and errands I’ve performed, gratis, to people in my community over the years, the many students who’ve come to my house and lived with my family for weeks, even months at a time… the emotional support I simply wouldn’t have been able to muster for people beyond my immediate family and close friends if I’d been employed at full tilt, full-time. ( Why is that, exactly? Because I’m actually not a super-woman; I’m not coyly pretending to be a laggard when I’m off starting companies and writing books and raising orphans. The truth is: I’m the opposite of a super-woman. I don’t have boundless energy; I’m not “always on the go;” I don’t “thrive under pressure;” I don’t get more done when I have  a ton of deadlines. I’m just a normally competent person who only has a certain amount of physical and emotional energy to deliver and who sometimes finds the tasks of adult life a bit much.

I’m still digressing. My point is this:  I am so unbelievably tired of people pretending that un-paid work doesn’t count. It does count. It helps to supports families and the communities they live in, it supports industry, and it props up the world just as surely as the wage-earning jobs do.  It certainly makes my husband’s career possible (which in turn supports a platoon of other wage earners and all their hideous squirmy “dependents”). My work–-  family care, teaching, school consulting, writing, sitting on my ass eating bon-bons – has always been movable, so he’s been able to accept the very best academic job offers without worrying about collateral damage – and he’s incredibly grateful for it.

I’ve never made any real money: preschool teaching and working for non-profits are not big money makers. Even at Harvard, my compensation is laughable for my education level and experience, and the time and responsibility involved.  I’ve never really had a problem with any of this. I’ve made my “choices.” I’m lucky to have choices yada yada. I do like to grumble here and there about my relative value in the market place. “The market has spoken,” the market regularly intones, like the wizard behind the curtain. Dear Market: Shut up, already! I mean, seriously, it would have been nice to top $50,000 at least once in my professional life, like maybe in 2008, when I was the actual director of a school, responsible for the safety and wellbeing of lots of little kids. Fine. Fortunately, I can afford to live a nicer life because — let’s really drive this home — my children and I depend on my husband. I am a dependent. I am a big loser in Ms. Wurtzel’s awesomely myopic world view. And my loserishness is a problem for the peevish Ms. Elizabeth Wurtzel, who is making her independent way in the world telling me I’m a worthless child, mind you, because I’m not only a drain on the economy but am bringing  women down:

When it’s come up, I have chosen not to get married. Over and over again, I have opted for my integrity and independence over what was easy or obvious. And I am happy. I don’t want everyone to live like me, but I do expect educated and able-bodied women to be holding their own in the world of work. Because here’s what happens when women go shopping at Chanel and get facials at Tracy Martyn when they should be wage-earning mensches: the war on women happens.

I know I should rein in the profanity, Elizabeth, but, on second thought: Fuck You.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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4 Responses to Earning My Keep

  1. You tell her!! We have actually been having a lively debate about this over the past few days in my little neck of the woods if you are interested in visiting. Today, I let the mind rest and participated in a photo challenge, but the past three days – especailly three days ago – have been about the Atlantic article and follow-up. The dialogue has been pretty engaging. It will be interesting to see if Ms. Wurtzel comes to regret any of her decisions as the years go by – not that she will ever let any of us mere mortals know! Thanks for a great post!

  2. Thanks so much. I like your site and am impressed by the way you’ve generated so much participation. I, too, wonder if Ms. Wurtzel will grow tired of the provocative shtick. I just read an article she wrote for Elle magazine a couple years ago on fading beauty, which made me think there are a lot of personal issues behind her posturing. (Issues she’s been happy to confess for a couple decades, so I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that.) I also pointed out in today’s follow-up post that magazines like the Atlantic are really getting off on creating so-called cat fights between women. Sure seems to generate readership. I publish weekly at TIME but was nonetheless very disappointed by the trumped up, sexualized breastfeeding “story” a few weeks back! Thank you, again.

  3. This was utterly brilliant and exactly what I wanted to write, but haven’t yet collected my thoughts. I subscribed to your blog, added you to Twitter, and intend to share everything you write. Bravo.

    • Wow… thanks. You have absolutely made my day. I was just feeling really revved up, which is sometimes the best approach to drivel like Wurtzel’s piece. Good to hear I’m not completely crazy. I write for TIME.com on Tuesdays — with less profanity – and I also blog occasionally for Huffington Post on a range of topics – public health, education, families, movies…

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