When I was in my late twenties, I quit my job as a C.P.A. to write fiction. The plan was to spend a year or so banging out a brilliant literary novel, and then see what happened. In the four years that followed I learned that writing a brilliant literary novel was harder than I had anticipated. I also got married to my longtime companion and had a kid. I never did go back to my Big Four firm; nowadays I spend most mornings either working on the damn novel or doing a smattering of freelance accounting work from my home office, and most afternoons and evenings with my daughter. Although I am still hoping to be a successful writer some day, I am basically satisfied with my life, and so is my husband. But I have a problem with many of my friends and family, who keep telling me that I am not following my feminist ideals and not living up to my promise.
They also ask me when I am going to start working again. Sometimes I detect a hint of accusation in their question, as if I am some sort of parasite. Other times what I detect sounds more like pity, as if I am some poor sequestered hausfrau. But even when the question is probably totally neutral, it makes me crazy. What do they think I am doing?
—Livid in Larchmont
Let’s take your friends’ and family’s obnoxious attitudes in order:
Not following your feminist ideals. Where I come from, which is a land of many marches and much reading and even some legal activism, one of feminism’s basic tenets is that sexism and gender-based discrimination should not restrict anybody’s freedom. With the possible exception of one or two long-discredited articles from the 1980s, there’s nothing I know of in feminist theory about having to spend your life in a Big Four firm (although I think it was Big Six, or even Eight, back then), even if you’d very much rather not, just because fancy accounting firms used to be mostly white-male-only. It sounds to me as if you are living the way you want to live, and that—unless your free-lance employers are villains of some sort—none of your three occupations runs counter to any feminist ideal I can conjure up. I award you the June Seal of Approval, and hope it helps.
Not living up to your promise. Oh, for God’s sake. Unless your promise was to make pots of money, it sounds to me as if you are doing just fine. You have a child, a spouse who seems to agree with you about what matters (I’m extrapolating), and enough economic security in your family to spend time with your daughter and do creative work. You are keeping your hand in as an accountant while caring for a young child, which seems like a perfectly fine work-family balance to me.
And you are working on a novel, which is a brave and generous act. If you complete your novel and it is a critical or popular success, I doubt whether many of those annoying friends and family members you describe will say you have not lived up to your promise. But even if what you produce is a good but unpopular, or unpublishable, novel, that’s still wonderful. In fact, even if all you produce is simply an honest effort, maybe not so good, maybe impossible to complete, you should still be proud. You had the courage and imagination to try
Besides, it sounds as if you’re not even thirty-five yet. Anything you are doing now could be preparing you for great accomplishments, in literature or finance or something altogether different. Not that it has to. Living a good life is more than enough.
Asking when you will be going back to work. As you and I both know, you are working three jobs right now. There’s your part-time accounting work. And then you have your child care and your writing, each of which can be full-time, even overtime, jobs in themselves, as when your daughter gets sick or you have a writing workshop deadline or your kid keeps you up until five with night terrors and then you wake up at five-thirty trembling with embarrassment over a story you just sent out, and can’t get back to sleep until you reread it.
I suppose some of your friends and family may not know, or remember, how much time it takes to raise a child and care for a home. And they may never understand the extent to which you value and enjoy the contributions you can make to your family life by spending more time at home.
Even the people who do get it about parenting may have no idea how hard it is, and how much time it takes most people, to write fiction, or understand that you take your writing very seriously and see it as more than a sideline. (Since you are a C.P.A., I assume that at least some of your friends are, too. Remember that these people live and breathe our tax structure, which treats jobs as hobbies if they fail to produce significant income.)
Other people in your circle probably do have a basic understanding that your various pursuits—as an aspiring novelist, a part-time accountant working from home, and a stay-at-home mom—all require effort and are “work” in that sense; but those same people may nevertheless believe that working full-time outside the home and being on some accounting-firm’s fast track is the “real work.” These folks probably place a higher value than you do on conventional success and status, salary, economic security, and so on—so they tend to assume that a new parent with a professional degree should return to using it full-time as soon as possible in order to maximize their earning potential and keep their competitive edge. You have other values, and that’s more than fine.
I hate to say this, but some of your friends and family may resent that you are doing what you enjoy; or they may have some visceral sense that, if you are doing what you want, and enjoying it, and not making very much money at it, what you do can’t really count as “work,” which requires either a regular salary, or at least a certain amount of unhappiness and aversion. (Kant and a lot of the more dismal old Protestants extend that idea to all of ethics: being good doesn’t really count if it’s what you’d do anyway, duty or no duty. So you are fighting a strong current.)
Having just explained how wrongheaded and small-minded some of your friends and family may be, I still want to remind you that many people who ask when you plan to return to work often mean no harm and intend no judgment: they simply define “work” as paid activity. This is especially true in the case of stay-at-home parenting. Many people, including feminist stay-at-home moms who deeply value the path they’ve taken, talk about “going back to work” after full-time parenting. I wish they wouldn’t, but I believe that the word usage in their case is almost always purely semantic, and implies no judgment about the value of parenting or unpaid work generally, or the effort involved in doing it.
But even these benign souls could use a little educating. Connotations matter. So when people ask you when you are going to start working again, I suggest answering them—mildly if they seem innocent, and more trenchantly if you suspect some snark—by saying that, for the foreseeable future, you plan to keep working at home on all your jobs: the writing, the accounting, AND the mothering. Tell them that it is a challenging life, but that you find it more fulfilling than spending hours commuting into town and then working full-time at the least favorite of your three current careers.
I also like the way you respond in your letter. When they deserve it and you think you can get away with it, why not just say: “Working? What do you think I’m doing now?”
Annoying friends and family aside, your life strikes me as quite satisfactory. But I do wonder whether you need to be on guard against letting these people get inside your head. I also worry that in some cases you may be projecting doubts and insecurities of your own onto other people, perhaps reading too much into innocent questions and imagining some of that supposed pity and disapproval.
So ask yourself: Are you internalizing what people say and imply, or even reading too much into their questions because of doubts of your own? Your reference to the “damn novel” worries me a little—are you losing interest in the book, or confidence in your ability to finish it? As for your working from home instead of going out to a more traditional, better-paying accounting job, might you feel defensive sometimes even when nobody is implying anything negative about your work situation?
As long as you are doing what you want, and what seems best for you and your family, you certainly do not have to answer to anybody outside it. But you should be vigilant about not sabotaging yourself, doubting your abilities, or slipping into patterns or activities that you yourself don’t find worthwhile or congenial. Give these issues a ponder or two and if you find cause for concern, try talking about it to trusted friends, fellow writers, fellow feminists and moms, maybe a counselor.
Best of luck with the kid, the novel, the accounts, and those vexing friends and family members.
LA WALLY SAYS:
How many of these people are actual moms? If she is happy and her husband and kids are happy, just tell people that. Ask them what they mean by “work.” Try to act interested and not pissed off. Maybe they will learn something.
My next-door neighbor never pays attention to anything, and it really shows in the way he keeps up his house. He does the usual minimum things, like mowing the lawn and shoveling the snow and raking the leaves, and when things get really desperate with his trees or gutters or house paint he will have somebody come and deal with it. But his place just looks shabby and untidy.
About two weeks ago I did a little experiment, and tossed three pieces of litter next to his mailbox, including a beer bottle. So far he has done absolutely nothing to pick them up and get rid of them, even though I have actually seen him collect his mail. It’s true that he usually gets his mail just by pulling his car up to the mailbox before he drives into the garage, but if he made any effort at all to inspect the area he could certainly see the litter.
What should I do? Should I ring his doorbell and point out that the trash has been sitting there for two weeks or more? Should I tell him about my little experiment, in hopes that this will make a stronger impression on him? I don’t like living next to the least attractive house in our neighborhood.
—Tidy in Tidewater
I wish I could tell you that your letter arrived in the same batch as one from a man who was perplexed when he saw his next-door neighbor skitter up to his mailbox and drop three pieces of trash there for no apparent reason. But alas.
I think what you should do is go clean up the litter yourself. Just stroll by your neighbor’s mailbox, notice the trash, and pick it up. And I guess it would be fine if he observed you doing so; it might even make him more likely to clean up after himself in the future, what with seeing somebody else picking up his trash, and all. But wait, it’s not his trash, is it?
From what you write it seems as if your neighbor’s untidiness or shabbiness does not rise to the level where you or your homeowners’ association or anybody else has the right to make an issue of it. I suspect that this is why you acted surreptitiously, which is a really unappealing way to act.
If I were you, I would try to stop thinking about your neighbor and direct your attention almost anywhere else. Volunteer. Sing. Go out with your friends. If you just can’t take your mind off residential exteriors, work on your own house and yard instead of obsessing about his. (Many adages and biblical quotations are springing to mind now, but I will spare us both.) Maybe your goal should be to make your own house the most attractive in the neighborhood, with the collateral effect of distracting passersby from the unattractiveness lying in wait just next door.
I advise against talking to your neighbor, partly because I am not sure what you would say, other than “Can’t you do better?” And I certainly would not tell him about your experiment. Your neighbor might find this mean-spirited and a little crazy.
LA WALLY SAYS:
If it is that big a deal to her, I guess she could write him a note and pretend it is to all the neighbors, or maybe actually send it to all the neighbors, about keeping the neighborhood pretty. Otherwise leave him alone.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.