the incompetence of me

I thought I would be less busy after school started, but alas, that has not the case. Its sort of my own fault, to be honest. I applied for a bunch of jobs in August and early September, and have been dealing with the repercussions (interviews) of those applications since. This should be good and exciting, but I’m ambivalent at best.

The thing is, I don’t even know if I want a regular job? Or if I’m just doing it because I feel like I should; like freelancing and writing while be a sahm isn’t “good enough.” Ergh. Like, expectations vs. reality.

So, expectations

Basically, I had a few social interactions this summer which were… mostly enjoyable, but left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I found myself thinking, I’d be taken more seriously/ respected as productive adult woman and contributing member of society/ my feminism not questioned at all if I just had a job, in the wake of each interaction, and in the hours/ days/ weeks which followed, I kinda felt like a shitty loser. The cumulative effect of it all, along with the general un-productiveness of trying to write during the summer months when everyone in the fam is home most of the day, was that by the end of summer I had this sense of being nothing but a waste of potential and/or space, not to mention someone betraying my education and misrepresenting feminism, and all these were definitely among the prime motivating factors to my end-of-summer spurt of employment applications to Real Office Jobs.

I. Gathering the first: Brunch in the City

Fun people, delicious food, and sightseeing—what more could you ask? For me, a bit of warning about changes in plans would have been nice. The basic plan was that I was meeting up with someone (“it’s Pat!”) I hadn’t seen in a while for a day-long visit. Because it was just us two, nothing fancy, I didn’t bother dressing up. No makeup, and just jeans, boots, and a black ribbed tank top. About 15 minutes out from their place, Pat shot me a text with this restaurant address a few miles back, saying to meet them there. I arrived late, and everyone else was seated.

Everyone else?

Yeah. Pat brought friends. Three people I’d never met—a guy and two gals. The women were flawless—gorgeously long, curling hair and makeup on-point, with very stylish outfits. And I was seriously undressed for the restaurant, a French bistro. So, right off the bat, it was like ack, panic attack, right? Kind of thrown and feeling off kilter/ out of place.  All awkward and gawky, surrounded by beautiful people.

But whatever, it happens. Roll with the punches.

Pat introduces me around, and as the conversation starts, my self-consciousness faded a bit. They seemed like lovely people, very personable and engaging. There was a bit of a hiccup early on when one of the women tried translate my menu for me, which was weird on two levels. One, because she assumed I wasn’t capable of comprehending enough French to read a menu, and (yeah, I’m not fluent in French, but I can actually read it well enough for menus, maps, and road signs), and two (more importantly), the menu actually had English translations? So, what … she thought I just couldn’t … read?

They were also a bit odd about the food–like, they seemed to think I hadn’t had French food before? And I’m not talking escargot or Jambon persillé or anything even vaguely exotic, I’m talking croissants and omelettes here. Right after I took a bite of my croissant, I looked up to see one of the gals watching me, and I sort of raised my eyebrows, like, yes? And she asked, “What do you think?” in this just fascinated tone that kind of threw me off. I sort of paused, looked at the pastry, looked at her, and replied, “It’s a good croissant?”

“Yes,” she said intensely. “But it’s a real croissant. Made fresh in their kitchen. Here—I like to have them with a bit of jam.” She proceeded to show me how to put jam and butter on my croissant, as though it was the first time in my 36 years of life that I’d had fresh croissants with jam and butter, and I was unfamiliar with the procedure.

Okay…

But. Oddities like that aside, it was generally a nice meal. Good food. As always, the question of what-do-you-do came up during conversation. I said was a stay-at-home, and the unexpected attendees said, “Oh! Pat said you were a writer!”

“Yes, I am,” I said, though I kind of wished Pat hadn’t said anything. I’m familiar with the follow-up questions, assumptions, and unspoken baggage that accompany my response. Before I can change the subject, someone cast it out: “So, what have you written? Where are you published?”

“Actually, I’m still unpublished,” I said. “I’m working on a book at the moment.”

I knew the look on their faces as they made polite noises and ask questions about manuscript they don’t ever expect to see the light of day. I’ve seen it before. Unpublished. Dilettante. Amateur. The guy asks if I’ve considered self-publishing, and I explain that I’m not averse to it, but after weighing the pros and cons of both, I’ve decided to try–initially–for trade. One by one, they recount success stories of self-publishing which they’ve read, or heard second-hand through a friend of a friend, and explain how easy it is. Someone asks me if I’ve heard of Amazon Prime–did I know I can sell books through their program? I smile and nod politely, as though this is all new information to me.

This is why I do not like to tell people I am a writer, or working on a book.

I don’t blame them, mind you. They’re trying to show interest, and, as successful businesspersons, offer advice. And there are two types of writers: Published and unpublished. We may all identify as writers, but until the validation of publication, that self-identification is as useful to the average Joe as saying I am a great singer, or a great dancer (neither of those are true, by the way). Art is subjective, and publication–whether self or trade–appears to offer an objective measure of worth via income–what people are willing to pay for my work.

Ironically, I am actually kind of published–in the sense I’ve been paid for my writing, anyway. Sometimes, for a quick buck, I skim freelance writing sites and pick up a reasonably high-paying job, like the articles that pay $11-$13 for word counts between 500 and 800. I can easily write that 45 minutes to an hour with minimal edits. Do three of those for one week, and that’s $200. Its published writing I was paid for, but its also nothing I can point to as proof of being a writer, since I sold the copy sans byline.

Finally, that line of conversation fizzled out, and they asked what I thought of the big city. This “big city” is about 3 hours away from my hometown, and I visit it a few times a year–as I have every year of my life. I said something about how its a nice place to visit, but I’m never fond of the traffic. They react with surprise: “Oh! You’ve been before? It’s a big city for you, isn’t it?”

Another strange assumption which tripped me up momentarily, and left me temporarily tongue tied. I made a non-committal, polite noise–I live within an hour of another large coastal city, and could probably have moved to one of the two cities at some point in my life if I liked cities, but I don’t. It seems a rude thing to say, though, to people who choose to live in the city. I tried changing the topic by mentioning a tidbit of interesting historical trivia about their traffic zoning laws. It works, and they responded with interest, asking how I learned that. I explained I came across the information while researching an academic paper, and run smack into another surprise when one of them expresses sympathy that I couldn’t finish my degree.

I looked at Pat, baffled. I was kind of wondering exactly what these people had been told– why did they seem to think I was a college dropout who’d never been to a big city or eaten French food?

I explained I had a BA from Evergreen, but they don’t recognize the college, even though its reasonably nearby and has some famous local alumni. I tried describing it–kind of a hippieish, eco-friendly, liberal arts college–and they actually began to name off similar colleges–Was it Berkeley, they ask? Pomona? The one Steve Jobs went to—Reed?–apparently under the impression I’d given a nickname? Like I didn’t know the name of my own alma mater? I was like, um, No. It was Evergreen State College. I went to Evergreen.

They shake their heads, dismissing this school they do not know, and the conversation turns to local rising housing costs. It turns out, they’re are all transplants from LA, which actually explains a lot about their unfamiliarity with the area. I’m told how lucky I am that rising housing costs aren’t a problem for me.

Eyebrow raise. Hmm. Actually, I explained, housing costs have been rising in my state as well, especially in the city an hour north of me, which has been experiencing a massive tech and hiring boom. The resultant high cost of housing has caused a displacement and an outward ripple of effect felt even in my town. I relate an anecdote about a friend whose rent for a 2 bedroom duplex rose $300 in four years, from $800 to $1,100.

They smiled and exchanged looks across the table. Maybe I’m imagining things, but I swear they’re amused. The gal holding Pat’s hand explains, her tone gently condescending, that last year their condo was only $1750 a month, and this year its doubled. This city, I needed to understand, is the new LA.

I felt small and stupid for talking about a $300 increase in rent when they’re paying $3500 in monthly housing costs.

Privately, I also kind of felt like $3500 in monthly housing costs is sheer idiocy and their own damn fault for prioritizing this lifestyle and looking down on anyone who chose not to pursue it. But that also felt like a judgmental/ mean way to think, so I tried not to dwell on it. We finished our meal, and Pat suggested we visit a large outdoor Farmer’s Market hosted in the city. While we walked around browsing the stalls, the conversation ranged through a variety of topics. Mostly from how I knew Pat to what I thought about the big city/ my reactions to the Farmer’s Market, to workplace issues such as salary negotiation and workplace sexism.

On the first two topics, there wasn’t much to say–I didn’t know how much of our shared history Pat was comfortable with me talking about, seeing as they repeatedly expressed surprise Pat even knew me. And I’d lost my patience with their whole shtick of acting like the “big city” was an exotic experience for me a while back and long since abandoned any polite rebuffs or pretenses at ignoring their questions. Instead, I settled on either not-so-veiled reminders that this wasn’t my first visit to the city, or unflattering comparisons to Seattle, which I prefer.

I knew I was starting to get snippish, but at that point it’d been several hours and I hadn’t spent any time with just Pat (as planned). I was worn thin and exhausted by a full day of socializing, and the effort of answering the same questions over and over left me feeling scraped raw and exposed. I just wanted to go home.

On the workplace topic, there was no point in contributing. I did try, out of politeness, but my only touchstones/ references were current readings, my undergrad education in labor law history, and previous employment experiences. The two attempts to engage were met with a blank stare, and a patient explanation that I didn’t really get the nuances of this particular company, and normal laws/ policies didn’t really apply because reasons. After that, whenever the conversation trended toward their various workplace issues, I’d just awkwardly pretend to examine knick-knacks in the stalls. Like, oh, these chunky wooden necklaces are just amazing.

Later, on the drive home, it dawned on me that maybe it wasn’t anything Pat said. Maybe it was the way I was dressed–the jeans and scrubby tank top; the lack of makeup. Maybe that, plus being transplants from LA and generally unfamiliar with the area (and towns) meant that when I said I was a stay-at-home mom, they assumed I must be a poor, uneducated country girl from a small town, and assumed I was trapped in my hometown, lacking an education or any opportunity to travel.

A slow burn of humiliation crawled over my skin, and I thought, If I had a real job, like Legal Assistant or Paralegal, or Office Assistant, at a place with Department of Something or Other, or Firm of So and So, then it wouldn’t matter what I was wearing. They wouldn’t assume I was stupid, because I’d be employed, and that’s shorthand for value and purpose. Stay at home mom is just unemployed—not valuable.

Tears stung at my eyes, even though I knew it was stupid to be upset. Even though I knew I’d never see those people again.

II. Gathering the second: A book club

I invited a friend—a former professor—to a book club at a local wine bar. It’s an enjoyable event that I attend regularly. We go, my friend is a hit because she’s amazing. Everyone loves her.

During the actual book club session, while reviewing books, I make a reference to some legal/ historical trivia that’s related to one of the books reviewed. This is not uncommon for me. It’s also a behavior my friend is very familiar with from when I was in her class, and we kind of riffed off each other for a bit—she does it too. What is uncommon is that one of the attendees—“Maura”– followed the reference by teasing another book club member (“Terry”) with a joke about warning them they were going to be surrounded by legal-types if they came. Maura then stated the room was “filled” with lawyers, and I realized with some discomfort she assumed I was a lawyer or otherwise employed in the legal field. I consider correcting the record, but decide not to bother—the joke wasn’t addressed to me, and perhaps I misinterpreted it. Besides, the conversation had already moved on, and it would be awkward and pedantic.

In the conversation afterward, Maura asked which firm I worked at. I told her I was not a lawyer. “Oh! So you’re in law school, then? Where are you going?”

“No,” I said with an awkward laugh. “Not law school, either. Just a nerd.”

“But she could have gone to law school,” interjected my former professor, in a tone that indicated I had rejected law school, rather than the other way around, as she directed as smile in my direction. It made me feel better; like I had an ally. I smiled gratefully at her, and Maura—perhaps sensing this was a line of questioning best dropped—suggested a list of books she thought I would enjoy.

Somehow we got to discussing The Feminine Mystique (I’ve only read the first few chapters; not super relevant to my life), and Maura said, “I thank god for our mothers, giving us the example they did. Can you imagine? If they hadn’t left the shackles of the home behind and marched into the workforce, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we enjoy today—we might be stuck at home, doing god-knows-what. Thank god for them, right? Thank god for our mothers, who were brave enough to stand up and say, no more.”

I mumbled something non-committal in response, thinking of my own wonderful, college-educated mother who left her position on the staff of the Idaho state Senator to marry my dad and be a stay at home mom to five children. In a fair world, my mom would have been recompensed for the labor she performed, but we do not live in a fair world. We live in a nation which pays lip service to the value of stay-at-home mothers, but devalues them in every material way.

There are no tax benefits for a stay-at-home partner. No basic income for adults who manage the household. No respect associated the work. Mom worked hard for over 30 years managing a household, a daunting task with or without children. Add children into the mix, and yeah. No wonder rich people hire maids and nannies and cooks. No wonder those who can’t afford to outsource the costs opt for a stay at home partner.

I thought, If I had a job, my feminism would never be in doubt.

Maura left shortly after. My friend and I began heading out to our cars, Terry dogging our footsteps. He asked me, “Where do you work?”

“I’m a writer,” I replied, sidestepping the question. I felt safer giving this reply to Terry than I had with the group in Portland, because Terry was also a writer. I knew this because, in the three months he’d been attending the club, the only books he’d reviewed were his own self-published texts. He’d also offered to host a how-to seminar on the topic of one of his books in lieu of one of our meetings. To my surprise, however, the response didn’t satisfy. “I mean, what do you do to pay the rent?”

I shot him an irritated look, so caught off guard by the rude directness of his query that I didn’t immediately pick up on what was perhaps an unwitting revelation regarding his own success in selling his work. The question stung, coming so soon on the heels of my conversation with Maura, and I spoke more bluntly than I intended: “I’m married.” My husband supports me.

He stopped in his tracks, his eyes going wide with surprise and confusion. “I thought—someone as intelligent as you—”

“Nope,” I said, walking a little faster. “My husband works, I manage the household and work on my book.”

He quickly recovered, and the conversation came to a limping close.

Later that week, he actually emailed me. He wanted my thoughts on his latest draft. I was busy, and a little irritated at his apparent presumption that I had nothing better to do. Still, I was willing to help out a fellow writer–at least glance it over. I left the email in my inbox to attend on the weekend, when I would have more time to read it.

Two days later, he emailed again, wondering if I’d gotten his previous email, as he hadn’t gotten my thoughts on the draft yet. I shot back a quick reply telling him I’d look it over and let him know in early September (a month and a half out).

He sent about one or two emails a week for the next three weeks, which I read but did not respond to. Mostly nattering about his drafts, thoughts, and future book ideas. I was developing the strong impression that to him, “stay at home mom/ writer” translated to, “well, she’s sitting around with her thumb up her butt and nothing to do, so I’m probably doing her a favor filling up all that loads of free time.

In late August, he sent me “research survey” for a book he was working on about generational attitudes. I love surveys–total sucker for them–so I did respond to that. To my surprise, he responded with an email quizzing me on my replies. Then he replied to that with a response that picked apart all the places my responses seemed to contradict one another. I replied, basically explaining, well, a) these views are all subjective, b) I did say at the start of the survey that I’m uncomfortable generalizing beliefs for an entire group, yet you continue to extrapolate my replies into such generalizations, and c) Macro and micro worldviews can appear contradictory, but still mesh together. For example, someone convinced we’ve already irreversibly killed the planet with climate change (a macro worldview) can still go to work, pay their bills, tend to their family, vote, and invest in their community (a micro worldview).

He responded, somewhat pompously, that our personalities did not mesh, and we couldn’t be friends, and I was just kind of wtf at that point. I sent a quick, terse response which politely explained I’d provided answers under the impression this was for writing research, not some sort of friendship interview. I rescinded the permission I’d previously given to use my name and responses, and asked him not to contact me further. He replied somewhat bullishly, telling me it was his pleasure to delete every correspondence we’d exchanged and that I was a real disappointment.

I thought, If I had a job, none of this would have happened. People wouldn’t look at me like I’m wasting my degree. My feminism wouldn’t be in doubt. My time would be respected.

III. Gathering the third: Music show

We are with a group of friends, mostly my husband’s co-workers and their SOs. They range from their mid-20s to mid-30s. I like this group—we’ve socialized before. They’re working class people earning middle class incomes, and degree valuation is not a thing in this group. Its something I like. No-one here cares about who has a college degree and who doesn’t, or where its from. Some have high school diplomas, some have AAs, and some have BAs. No-one here is impressed by fancy job titles with shit pay and long hours. When we hang out, conversations run the gamut—from politics to pop culture, history to current events. I love these guys, and we don’t see them nearly often enough.

My husband and I enter the bar we’re all meeting at and find our group when they start shouting our names. There’s someone new with them, someone I’ve never met. Soon enough, we’re introduced, and I learn “Greg” has actually worked there for a while and heard all about me (said with a flutter of eyelashes at my husband). Greg seems pretty flamboyantly gay in his speech mannerisms and few other affectations, as well as the constant flirting and references to crushing on various guys in the group, but I’m not making any assumptions. I’m a short-haired woman who frequently eschews make-up and rides a motorcycle; I am aware that people can make mistaken judgments about sexuality based on appearances. Eventually, though, Greg tells me he’s gay. Cool.

We end up spending most of the night in conversation, and get along well. Near the end of the evening, Greg says (fairly drunkenly), “You’re so smart—so smart! What are you—what do you do? I mean, for a living? What do you do?”

I pause, caught by the question I’ve come to dread this summer, and my husband catches my eye across the room. His eyes widen, and he jumps in to answer for me. We both speak at the same time—me, with flat sarcasm, and my husband in a curiously upbeat tone.

“She’s a writer!”

“I’m a kept woman.”

Greg’s eyes widen comically, and he almost falls off his chair. “A kept wo—whaaaaa?”

“I’m a stay at home partner and mom. And a writer,” I clarify, shooting my husband an apologetic look as I realized how my snark had demeaned us both. “It was a joke. A bad one.”

“No you’re not,” Greg said, shaking his head. I lifted an eyebrow, bemused. “Sorry?”

“No, because–you can’t be! You’re all, like,” *snaps fingers* “In charge! And smart! And take charge! You don’t take no shit from no-one, I can tell! So, you can’t be, like, some little-miss-stay-at-home, because that’s just not—” He waved his hand expressively, wrinkling his nose at the mental image he’d conjured up with those words. Submissive. Obedient. Religious. Quiet. Oppressed. Ignorant. Pitiable. “You’re not that.

I wasn’t drunk, just buzzed. Buzzed enough to burnish the edge off my hurt, to laugh off the offense. To toss my head, lift one shoulder, put on a careless smile as a I laughed and snarked off some response about how it was hard, but somehow I managed to possess brains and the ability to manage a house.

But it stings. The next day, when I recount the incident to my best friend, I tell her that I’m going to start applying for jobs–that I’m tired of this bullshit.

“What about your book?” she asks.

“I dunno,” I said. I was frustrated. I’d hardly been able to work on the damn thing all summer, anyway, and I was so tired of being dismissed and devalued. I thought, If I had a job, people would take me seriously. I would have a daily schedule. People would respect my time. I wouldn’t be wasting my degree. I wouldn’t be betraying feminism.

~*~

So, in a flurry of fury, I applied for dozens of jobs, then … kinda forgot about it. Got over it. School started, and I got back to routine and started working on my book regularly again.

Except when I was interrupted by interviews.

My husband laughed at my irritation. “You do this every summer,” he said. “You get frustrated with the lack of routine, the lack of production, and you apply for a bunch of jobs. Then you spend a few months half-assing interviews.”

“I don’t half-ass them,” I said indignantly, side-stepping his other observations. “And at least this year, I applied for positions that make it worth it.”

He didn’t say anything, but I could see his reflection in the mirror as I applied my mascara–the way his blue eyes were lit with laughter, the amused affection at my predicament. I wrinkled my nose at him.

~*~

vs. Reality

The thing is, the last full-time Real Office Job I had, I was paid $11.50/hr, no benefits. Long story short, our household income actually decreased by an average of $300/ month while I was working, despite the fact my take-home paychecks were about $800 each, so an extra $1600 a month. Over the long term,  the costs of me working outside of the home (commute costs, vehicle maintenance, car insurance; childcare; and outsourcing or neglecting budgeting/ financial chores/ tasks normally performed by me) added up. As counter-intuitive as it seemed, when we looked at our household budget before, during, and after my employment, the math was clear: I was more of an asset to the household and household income as a stay-at-home parent and/or partner than as secondary income, unless I could get hired by an employer who would pay a living wage for our area (which the MIT Living Wage calculator currently puts at $15/hr).

Last summer, I was actually offered a full time position for $15/ hr. However, I was concerned about the stability of the position–it was a small business employer (fewer than 15 employees), with no HR, high position turnover (1-2 per year), and they didn’t offer benefits or retirement plans (ie, did not  value investing in their employees). I also had a surgery scheduled in 6 months, and kind of suspected I would find I’d been replaced when I tried to return to work after the recovery period. After discussing the pros and cons of the position with my husband, we decided it sounded too much like a repeat of my 2012 job (also with a small business employer)–a toxic work environment with high turnover, no employee protections/ job security, and no indication of willingness to invest in a loyal and trained long-term term staff (although they often, unrealistically, expect their underpaid and understaffed employees to perform work as though they’re highly skilled acolytes of the company).

Honestly, I think small businesses, with their high taxes and narrow operating margins, are just bad for employees. They don’t mean to be, but when running such ships through such shallow shoals, employees end up being the ballast. Its not that small business owners mean to be shitty bosses, its just that they’ve got super intense pressure to do everything they can to keep the business running and hide that mad scrabble from the clients—to project this image of success. So they’re sacrificing, which ends up with them expecting their employees to sacrifice/ invest in the business, as well–and resenting them when they don’t. And they inevitably seem to end up cutting costs in ways which negatively affect the employees.

So I swore I’d never work for a small business employer again … but it turns out all the jobs around here that I qualify for with my education and work history are either small business employers or government. So I applied to a bunch of state jobs, and now–about two months later–I think I’m finally done dealing with the repercussions of that ill-thought temper.

The last position actually had a civil service test aspect to it, which I thought meant would make the process less biased than the usual interview process (basically a Very Important First Impression on steroids merged with a sales call where the product is yourself–a situation I do not do well in, given my high anxiety). Well, I passed the exam part just fine, only to get rejected on the next phase due to “financial mismanagement.” Specifically, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy and times I’ve been referred to bill collectors.

Apparently, it is acceptable and conceivable that the President of the United States could potentially be a person with multiple bankruptcies and over a decade of unpaid taxes due to exploiting tax loopholes, but gods forbid someone with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and/or collections activity (due to the accruing costs and damages of a FEMA-recognized natural disaster) end up working an administrative job with the local government department—even if it was half a decade ago and they’ve managed to repair their credit.

So, that happened. However, I realized … that’s the last one. Last of August applications. No one else will call me for an interview. I’m done, which means from now on (until the next spate of idiocy) I can just focus on the actual work of my day-to-day.

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