The guilt of ‘not contributing’

I’ve been thinking about a post like this all weekend, but truth be told, I’ve been a little nervous about writing it. Nervous because it’s very personal, and yet it’s an issue I’ve been dealing with for the past month or two, and I think an important one.

What finally convinced me to get over my nerves was a post from one of the bloggers I regularly read, Jessie Knadler over at Rurally Screwed. In one of her latest posts, she talks about the future of her blog (I for one hope it doesn’t go away!), but also about the guilt of being a stay-at-home mom vs. being a working mom. Now, I’m not a mom, but this bit did touch a nerve:

I love being a stay-at-home mom for now even as I’m wracked with guilt for not producing. Isn’t that the way it goes? I feel guilty when making money because I’m not there for the girls.  I feel guilty when I’m not making money because I love to work (for money) and don’t feel like myself when I don’t have some kind of paycheck. See? You can’t win. Moral of the story, boys and girls: You can’t win.

It’s been about a month now since I left my old, full-time, salaried job at the bookstore. It was a good job, and I was able to gain some valuable management experience. It wasn’t a forever job, and it certainly wasn’t going to be my career – maybe it was the job to get me through grad school, but a job in the library world was always in my future. Then, I had to leave that job, and it wasn’t under the best of circumstances. Long story short, I really didn’t want to leave, but was given no choice.

While I don’t particularly miss the work (retail isn’t the most glamorous of industries), I do miss the paycheck. A lot. Now, J and I are fine financially. Plus, as J continually tells me, “I’m in school”, so it’s OK if I take a little time out from full-time work to focus on my studies. And I am. And I’m also really lucky to have found a great part-time job at one of the libraries on campus, where I’m gaining even more valuable experience, making important connections, and learning a lot.

But still, I really miss that paycheck. Especially now that we’re future home-buyers, and we have to pay triple attention to our bank accounts. Especially now that I’m forcing both of us to “be on a budget” – and not just a suggested budget, but a strict, real, budget-budget.

But I miss that paycheck because the simple fact is: I like working, and I like working for a paycheck. I like to “contribute”. I like to pay my own way. I like to provide for my family. I’ve never made a lot of money, neither when I was working for the bookstore or a reporter, but at least I made enough to contribute to our family income in a significant way.  And because both J and I had decent jobs and weren’t burdened by unreasonable credit card debt, we always felt financially free. Not rich or really “well off” by any standards, but we never had to worry.

And we don’t have to worry now, either, but still. Whatever income I have is just a tiny drop in the bucket – not the modest splash I’m used to – and it fills me with guilt. I feel guilty every time I remind J that, “Well, maybe you should think twice about going out to the bar with co-workers because, you know, budget.” I feel guilty every time I want a new pair of shoes or to have coffee, at a coffeehouse, with friends. I even feel guilty taking on the additional expense of a house even though we’re more than ready and gosh darn it, I want this more than anything.

But the guilt described by Knadler is still there. I think it’s tough for women to admit this guilt, just like it’s tough to admit that, as a woman, I like working for a paycheck. While I wouldn’t describe myself as, and I certainly don’t want to be, a workaholic, I do derive a real sense of identity and self-respect from working. Who am I? Well, I’m a reporter/bookseller/manager/librarian, and I believe in what I do, and I work hard at it. To be cut off from the working world, or just cut down to part-time, is difficult for me to admit is acceptable. And while I know it sounds goofy, and I don’t want to believe in it, if I’m being honest with myself, it is hard to feel like myself without that paycheck in the mail.

A big part of this is because I am, in one way, a workaholic – I always have to be doing something. Hence, this blog (and my other blog). Hence, my endless planning. The cleaning. The reading. I also have some big plans to help fill my time in the coming months: applications for internships and graduate assistantships, some academic writing, maybe some creative writing? I’ve considered getting another part-time job, and I do think I could make it work, but there’s a reason working two different jobs is difficult – two different bosses, managing two different schedules, lots of driving, even less free time than if you had one full-time job. I’ll do it, but if only if the right opportunity comes by.

Now, why is this a “woman’s issue”? I certainly don’t want to insinuate that it’s unusual for a woman to feel guilty when she doesn’t bring home the bacon. Quitting or being laid off from your job doesn’t have to be a “woman’s issue”, and the guilt associated with it affects men and women. But the fact of the matter is – and this is how it’s impacting me, personally – due to circumstances out of my control, I’ve been thrust into the part-time housewife position, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind spending the extra time I have at home cooking and cleaning – in fact, I enjoy it. One the key philosophies behind this blog is that there is no shame in enjoying these chores.

But I was forced into this situation, and I don’t like not having the ability to choose how I live my life. Similar to how I feel about a lot of women’s issues, choice is important. A woman can work 40+ hours a week, or she can be a stay-at-home mom, but she should have the right to choose. What I dislike is having that choice taken out of my hands. Now, I know that I didn’t leave my old job because I was a woman – I know there’s a difference, and like I said, losing your job isn’t a woman’s issue. But I still find myself in this position, and I’m not entirely comfortable with it yet.

Unfortunately, I can see this issue continuing to weigh heavily on my mind until, well, I graduate with my Master’s and find that full-time job as a librarian. Until then, I’ll continue to feel grateful that I married such a generous, loving person who insists, rather vehemently, that I do whatever is best for me and not feel guilty about it. Marriage, I’ve found, really is a partnership in this sense, and helps assuage just a little bit of that womanly guilt I feel. When I figure out how to get rid of the rest of it, I’ll let you know.

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