My husband recently made an inordinate sum of money in twenty minutes.
He and a colleague with whom he wrote a book spoke at a conference in a nearby city, and while the travel time and conference took up most of one day, the amount of money they each got paid seemed outrageously high for a talk shorter than an episode of Mister Rogers. Let's just say that if you spread my husband's honorarium out over the twenty minutes that he actually spoke, he made enough in sixty seconds to pay for take-out from our favorite Thai restaurant. For five.
Not that I should complain. Raising three boys on one salary (his), with a trickle of freelance writing and editing checks (mine), in an economy that depresses even those of us who still think Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae might have been Grandma's neighbors -- well, it's not easy. Considering that our family can go through about a loaf of bread a day and that said bread loaf now costs four dollars, you'd think I'd have been happy about any extra cash. Considering that one of our sons takes cello lessons, that another begins piano in the fall, and that the three year old wants to buy a skyscraper, you'd think I would have been ecstatic.
I was furious.
You must first understand this: the night that my husband told me the amount of his incoming check I was feeling a little down. The book I'd been working on for two years had been rejected by twenty publishers, and my agent's emails had become noticeably less chirpy. I'd just found out that a magazine I'd written for in the past had stopped paying for unsolicited manuscripts; but that they'd be happy to accept my recent submission under their new terms. I hadn't received a regular paycheck for about seven years, and my best recent career move -- to write a column that earned me ten dollars a pop -- was ceasing.
My income envy would have made sense, of course, had it come in a different guise -- jealousy of my good friend who recently landed a well-paying librarianship, perhaps, or of my brother, whose successful dental practice allows him to work three days a week. But I was flummoxed by my anger about a big, fat check that was headed straight for my own family's purse. Why in the world was I stomping around the house because we finally had some extra cash to funnel into college savings?
That my earning insecurity would come to this bizarre level was perhaps inevitable. I married a man twelve years older than I, who was finishing his PhD when we met. In the first few years of our marriage, I bopped around through several jobs, happily clueless that some day I might wish for a career path from which to "off-ramp." I finally landed in graduate school and graduated a month before our first son was born. After that I was so disoriented and tired that I couldn't remember how to spell writing, let alone actually do anything resembling it. A year later I got pregnant again, and then once more, and before I knew it my income-earning power approximated that of a groundhog.
The story is a tad more complex than all of that. Of course, I could probably get a job somewhere these days (like maybe at the mini-mart down the street?). And when the kids are all in school, I might even be able to land a job related to my training, or I might spend more hours freelancing. I have also found an abiding, if slightly disconcerting joy in reading to kids in pajamas at ten in the morning, and walking to the park, and even, as feminist writer Leslie Bennetts disdains, being the one to keep track of the butter. Plus, staying at home with kids has allowed me to write a book, something I never would have done had I been holding down a full-time job.
Yet the contours remain -- my husband makes more than I ever will.
The years I spent at home with children came at a cost.
My feminist young-adult self never saw any of it coming.
Just when you think you are coming to peace with how your life fits --the way it drapes across your shoulders or falls over your hips, the way it catches the light when you twirl before the mirror -- is when you're reminded of how much it cost. It is often when you begin to perceive its beauty, the way your choices and losses have purchased a surprising amount of contentment and even joy that you realize you still owe on the bill.
Beautiful things are expensive. You must learn and relearn, and sometimes you don't have as many resources as you thought to pay for them.
When my husband tells me how much the conference is paying him, a smile edges his mouth. It is the shy, proud smile of a fifth-grader bringing home a good report card, or a toddler bringing you a bouquet of dandelions. It's twice as much as he expected, and he thinks I will be happy with the multiplication of our expectations, the windfall from an easy day's work.
In my present state, I read his upturned lips only as a smile of smugness. While I've mostly come to terms with the fact that he's the primary income-earner, that he's the one who packs the paycheck and buys the insurance, this check has driven him into my territory. I'm the freelancer in these parts, the moonlighter, and the one who brings in the Other Income on our tax return. It's my freelancing monies that are supposed to provide the jolt of extra energy to our monthly budget, the splash of WD-40 to lubricate the gears of our fairly middle-class life.
I stare at him, open-mouthed, and his smile begins to fade. I gasp, then splutter some inanity that I can no longer remember, something like "That's not fair!" or "Damn it! I've never made that much for anything I've written!" Then I sulk around the house for awhile, cursing male privilege and women like myself who help it along.
Later I apologize for my huffiness, tell him that I'm happy that he got paid so much for his talk. I tell him that I'm proud of the way his book is selling, the fact that he and his co-authors have donated the royalties to an organization that helps children in poverty around the world. He says it's fine, that my ambivalence is understandable, and that I don't need to apologize.
That night, lying in bed beside him in the dark, I resolve to be a little less competitive, a little less attached to economic definitions of what constitutes worthy work, a little less threatened by the successes of someone I love. I resolve to remember the unfathomable strangeness of getting paid to write and speak at all, in a world in which half the population exists on less than two dollars a day. I decide that maybe eventually I'll be able to view with clearer eyes the privilege that enables me to get irritated that someone in my household brought home some unexpected bacon.
But I doubt I'll ever really get it, the fact that I still tally life's gains and losses mostly in economic terms even after all I've learned from hanging out with kids. I don't know when I'll be ready to throw out the old balance sheet and bring in the new, when I'll stop calculating assets and liabilities using equations I no longer trust. I'm not sure when I'll understand how a life can look so poor when you look at it in one light, so rich when you look at it in another.