It’s Friday. Where’s my paycheck?
I am a divorced, full-time parent, who also seeks work and has been doing so for more than a year, since the most recent layoffs – two, nearly simultaneously. I was working a corporate full-time contractor job (marketing writing) and a freelance journalism job. I managed both around parenting my boys. And I was almost paying my bills.
I cobble together a living. I write. I do small projects. I borrow, because I must borrow.
How many of us are in this situation? Men and women who no longer show up in a statistic because we aren’t on the unemployment rolls? When you work contract or freelance, there are no benefits. There is no unemployment. How many single parents are there, with too little child support or an unenforceable piece of paper, living on credit and a prayer? Women, mostly. And still showing up 24/7 for their children, sinking deeper into debt, aging more rapidly, getting sick from “doing it all,” and lack of proper medical care.
So. There. I’ve said it. I’m 50 and worn out. 50 and financially beyond repair. Still parenting. No “regular” job opportunities. Skills galore, brains-a-plenty, and a body that is breaking down – or feels like it – largely from the stress that has kicked a sleep disorder into the red zone. As for my 18 years of “volunteer parenting” for no pay, and two more to go? I’m over it. Where’s my paycheck – with back pay and benefits?
As for the past year? Let’s not go there. I wish to speak frankly, but I am also trying to follow my own rule, about not airing dirty laundry on the Internet. And truth is mutable, subject to contortion in able hands. This is my truth. Only that. And my indignation, which some of you share.
We pay childcare providers – Don’t parents qualify?
So here it is, my treatise: My time, my knowledge, my skills, my experience all poured into parenting, and were I not here, doing this job, someone else would be, and with pay. Where’s my $1,000/week pay for full time parenting two boys? Or $2,000/week, since expenses require that I feed them, house them, buy them books and school supplies, clothes and doctor’s visits? Too much money you say? If I were a live-in nanny, multilingual, with fancy degrees and years of experience – how much would you pay me then?
Would you prefer a different standard?
Fine. How about a teacher’s salary? An accomplished and experienced teacher, and that means health care benefits and disability benefits, right? Maybe even dental and vision and life insurance. Perhaps a retirement plan of some sort. Unemployment insurance. Wait. I won’t be needing that because I’m a mother, and my children are my heart. Abandonment could only come from my death. And I vowed years ago that I would live until this job is done. It is my bargain with God. Until they are properly launched, doing the best I can for my sons. I gave them life. I owe them that.
Anger as fuel
So I’m back to my issue, my waking thought, my irritation, my constant fear, my morning seething. The mask is off. I’m too damn tired for pretty or cute or upbeat. This is real, a fragment of my reality, a painful one at that: perpetual worry about my ability to keep going on virtually nothing, to keep parenting because it is my responsibility, knowing it isn’t solely mine, but it has turned out to be largely mine.
And while it has also been my privilege, getting through each day is getting harder. I am disintegrating. And parenting. And despite everything, parenting reasonably well.
But I want to talk about pay for work, to stay angry if I must for the fuel which that particular emotion provides, to address value for critical skills and experience, the years of nurturing children, of encouraging them, teaching them, preparing them for the world and their contributions to it. I want to talk about surviving rather than slowly spiraling into poverty, which is exactly where I have been headed for many years. Now tell me – why do we pay babysitters and teachers, cooks and house cleaners, gardeners and handymen, taxi drivers and bus drivers, career counselors and tutors? I have been all that, and more.
Parenting is a profession.
Why aren’t we paid for it?
At the very least, why are we penalized for it in the workplace, in our earnings, in our so-called retirement accounts, in our other theoretical “benefits?”
Consider this a teaser. A thread. Something I’ve been twisting around in my mind for months, but I haven’t untangled it and knitted the fabric as yet. And I’ll come back to it, with less emotion but no less conviction. If I’m lucky, with more sleep, and less pain in my limbs.
Of course, it’s hard to fabricate anything when you’re scrapping for every dollar, responding to the latest child request, when your mind is here and there trying to wrap itself around creative ways to fight “the system” for money due; that mammoth untouchable “system” and its inertia, its resistance to change, its crushing weight, its complexity. The system that requires two parents to support their children, yet executing on that logical formula without the assistance of an attorney is nearly impossible. Who has money for an attorney?
And don’t tell me “having children was your choice.” My choice was to marry, then have children. An explicit choice. And happily (for me), Woman + Man = Children. Sadly, (Divorce – Adequate Support) + (Solo Parenting) + Aging = staggering slippage into Here Where I Find Myself, along with my children. Disintegration. Potentially, disintegration of everything.
That is the equation, simplified, that has ruled my life for nearly 9 years.
Disintegration of everything, you say?
Given the right circumstances, yes. Damn near, and almost there. Divorce happens. Illness happens. Layoffs, bad economy, insufficient or no insurance, health problems, no family to help. Were the kids supposed to stop needing? To stop learning? To stop eating? Dreaming? And I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones and I know it. I had borrowing power, the result of working for 25+ years, until the borrowing power is a thing of the past. And now it is.
Parenting is a profession
So here I am, in the murky waters where I have been circling for months now. Churning this notion that parenting is a profession. I look at the unrelenting demands on a solo parent, the quality and diversity of skills that I bring to the job daily – many of which are those same skills once used in the corporate world and in other organizational scenarios since. And I repeat: where’s my paycheck?
Some 15 years ago, I had two toddlers who required care while I went to the office. At that time, I paid people for that care, a qualified organization with glorified babysitters. For eight hours of care, to the tune of somewhere around $16,000/year. That continued each year until they went to elementary school. Shortly after that, I changed my work situation (I was older, with 20 years of experience at that time). I arranged for a corporate position from a home office. Full-time worker, full-time parent, complete with car pool duty, volunteering at school, and 60 hour corporate work weeks. I managed that for a number of years, until layoff hit, at the same time as my divorce.
At the very least – shouldn’t there have been a paycheck for the hours I’ve poured into raising my sons?
Yes, this is anger. You don’t like me like this, do you. I don’t like me like this either. But it is part of who I am, who I have become, not who I want to be. This is anger in the wake of reinventing myself more times than I care to admit, in restart after restart to make a little money, to try to make “a life,” to get by. This is anger even in the midst of extraordinary gratitude for several angels in the lives of my sons – and their kindness has shown me the good in people, and I will never forget. But there is still anger. I cannot get up physically to fight back. And if I cannot fight for my children who will?
Calmly, the morning
And still, I wake my teenager as gently as I can so he may start his day: shower, gather books, eat breakfast, while I’m making his 2 sandwiches for lunch. Then he drives the (inexpensive) car I’ll be paying off for years to come, carefully, as I’m also the driving instructor (unpaid). He goes into the school, I come home, and I write. And I search on the internet for projects and jobs I could do, close to home or from home. And I network. And I write some more. And I wonder if perhaps today will be the day, finally, the day when something will bring me closer to being a provider again. Because my main job – parenting – provides enormous satisfaction and so much more, but no paycheck. It drains everything out of me – physically, emotionally, financially. And my body is paying the price. Now. More than ever.
College fund – nice concept. Retirement fund? That, too.
So we hit the latest rock in a decade of falling boulders in our paths. College. My younger son is starting to lose motivation. An honors student. Gifted artistically and musically. Still curious, still engaged. Still unspoiled. We research together – colleges to apply to and scholarships to consider, but of course – he has a particular handicap. His overeducated, overqualified, over 50-year old mother, who earns nothing. His father, who earns a good living. His contribution to the cost and logistics of raising these boys? We won’t go there. Suffice it to say that support agreements are problematic, depending upon the state of residence. They are frequently unenforceable, particularly out of state. Suffice it to say that if one parent makes a good deal of money, whether or not they are willing to use it to assist with college (or any other academic program) is moot; “need-based” aid? Here’s that word again: problematic.
So my son is growing discouraged. Understandably. And I am fighting tooth and nail to hold him up. To keep his hope alive.
Money for college? I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to live in our tiny home. And I’m worried, worried about losing a second home to a bad economy and an unenforceable piece of paper, to trying to parent with adversarial maneuvers hovering in the background. I’m trying to figure out how we survive, how I survive, and I have no answer. And I’m angry. I’m angry because my skills and love and experience and work – and it has been hard work – it has value. Tremendous value.
And it goes unpaid and unrecognized.
The role of parenting – free labor?
I read this earlier this morning, courtesy of Jacsmum: My boys believe the house we live in is my ex’s, and have told me so; their reasoning being that he had a job and earned money, while I was at home for so many years. 20 years of mothering, and it has no dollar value in most people’s eyes. I am an educated woman in a wealthy country. What, then, of the women in poor countries with no education??
Her point was a different one – and understandable. She is spotlighting the countries that are brutally poor, where there is literally no control, no digging out, only despair.
But I am not feeling “socially responsible” this morning. Only angry, and exhausted. I will be the writer who entertains you tomorrow, and the next day, and perhaps the day after that. I will stay behind the curtain of my own making, where I am – frankly – more at ease. But this morning, I am raw, in pain, frightened, livid, desperate. Searching inside myself for more strength, more ideas, more of anything to keep us going.
So I focus on the few lines that pertain to me. Yes, this morning it’s all about me, while realizing that there are millions of women who must feel as angry and as powerless as I do. Women who are thoughtful and frightened and bewildered as am I, on this very same topic. And perhaps equally without a solution. 20 years of mothering, and it has no dollar value in most people’s eyes. Jacsmum couldn’t have said it any more clearly. I, too, am an educated woman in a wealthy country – and I earned that education at a time when at least that was possible. So here I am. Here we are – many of us. But when support checks are late, infrequent, too little, or simply disappear, and when all the other expenses (medical, educational) that are supposed to be shared are simply ignored, and when the last thing you can do is afford to fight back – not only do you live in a country where mothering has no value, it is the ticket to poverty.
Where is the control or the representation in that? How do my degrees assist in any way, except to be so much salt in the wound, when they are held against me if I look for work that requires no such degrees?
How is it worse to be uneducated and impoverished than educated and impoverished?
Not the end of this discussion
Not the stuff of a typical Friday morning musing. And not supported in a carefully constructed argument, backed by data. I apologize for that, and still insist – in my blurry, sleep-deprived manner, and rushing to get on with the morning mothering duties:
Having contributed to the economy for 25+ years, having “done it all” as the superwoman myth requires, having set aside my dreams, or most of them, to give the best I possibly could to my sons, where is my paycheck??
Yes, I chose to become a mother. In a marriage, when I had a job. Like many women, post-divorce, I find myself in a situation I could never have imagined, and have never been able to dig out. I have no regrets for putting my sons first, but the questions persist. Doesn’t that have value? Had I been “hired” to provide the services that I have, I’d be making $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000/year, certainly.
Where’s my back pay? Much less my hope? And my sons’?