*The image above is the homepage of a recently launched project that I designed earlier this year. See the full website here.
On Facebook the other week, I threw out on my status that I was looking for a new career and that any and all suggestions would be considered. I didn’t have any revelations on the new career of my dreams, but it did spark some interesting conversations with some friends who shared similar thoughts. Technology and industries are evolving so fast these days that we’re needing to adapt and reinvent ourselves every 5-10 years in order to survive. Plus sometimes we just need a change. With the way things have been gone this past year with work, I decided that I was going to quit being a freelance designer.
And I did. Well, for about 3 months. I didn’t design, I didn’t do any work for clients and I didn’t dwell on it too much in terms of what it meant for the future. It didn’t feel like a temporary break either because it possessed a certain air of finality that it never had before, but it also ushered in a sense of relief that I didn’t quite expect. What surprised me the most, however, was how calm I was. No plunging into depression or crippling anxiety like in years past when I had nothing lined up. No fatalistic thoughts that my career was over while lying paralyzed, face down on my bed wondering how I’d pay the bills. Sure, there were a lot of questions swirling around and I gave some thought to each and every one of them, but not in a panic. Believe me when I tell you that it was weird to feel this calm and rational about something that was nothing short of a career identity crises. Maybe I was finally able to separate my self esteem from the ups and downs of freelance, something that has been so inextricably intertwined in the past.
Incidentally about a month ago, I got a call from a producer from the Katie Couric show inquiring about my participation in a discussion about women breadwinners for a TV segment. A Pew study had just been released that revealed that a record 40% of breadwinners were now women, and she found my blog post from 2 years ago while doing research online. After giving it some thought I declined, partly because I realized at that moment that as of last year, I wasn’t the breadwinner anymore. The producer was actually very keen on exploring that angle, but this realization was just too fresh and I hadn’t processed it yet. I certainly didn’t want to sort out my feelings in front of a TV camera and a national audience. For the first time in our relationship, I felt a trickle of guilt creep in. I was so used to being the breadwinner for all these years, the one who carried our family through both tough and more prosperous times, that the sudden reversal of roles caught me off guard with feelings I had never felt before – feelings of inadequacy twinged with feelings of guilt that I wasn’t pulling my weight. Suddenly, I found myself on the other side.
But…wasn’t that burden being lifted what I always wanted? Didn’t I often find myself envious of those who were on the other side of the breadwinning equation? Turns out, it was a little more complicated than that.
The truth is, despite my declarations that I was “quitting the business!”, the reality is I can’t – not yet anyway. I still need to work and bring in a paycheck aside from the business that Mark and I share. But those stretches of down time in between gigs have gotten longer over the past 18 months and it gave me enough of a taste of what it felt like to be that person in a relationship earning less than the other for the first time. I discovered that instead of feeling relieved of the burden of carrying the family like I always thought it might, it made me reevaluate my role. Suddenly, we weren’t just talking about a career identity crises here; it dug a little deeper than that. “But, I was always the one! The one making the money!”, I thought. So now what? Who am I now?
The reversal of the breadwinner role isn’t just black and white; there are a thousand nuances at play here. Although I’ve always believed that this isn’t necessarily a gender issue because either gender can take on that breadwinner role (and all the baggage and emotions that swirl around it), I can’t ignore that it is, in fact, a gender issue because of societal expectations and how we still perceive gender roles in the workplace and family life. For me, it also relates to the debate of whether or not women can truly have it all. I knew that staying home wasn’t an option for me, but I also didn’t want to choose between my career or my family. As a woman, I resented the fact that it was often the mothers who had to make that choice, mostly because of the way the corporate American workplace was structured, so I decided I wasn’t going to choose, but instead figured out a way to make both work. I guess it was like sticking my finger up at corporate America for making me feel like I had to choose in the first place. We were rarely apologetic in the fact that many of our decisions about our career paths were influenced by our determination to put family first and we were often transparent about our reasons why. Some aspects of our careers suffered and we did lose out on opportunities, but I have since come to the conclusion that having it all is a myth, at least until some changes take place in the corporate work environment that allow employees to integrate family and work life. This shift would also include how parents in the workplace are perceived. Politicians place so much emphasis on family values, yet in this country employees feel this unspoken pressure to hide family life from the workplace. Why? Because we feel our commitment to our jobs are being questioned if we admit that the real reason we’re leaving early is because we want to attend our child’s dance recital.
My “sabbatical” (as I’ve now jokingly been calling it) away from my freelance work these past few months have certainly made me evaluate my life, my career, and the expectations that I have for myself as the breadwinner of the family. I’m trying to reconcile all these conflicting feelings. Why is this guilt creeping in and why does it make me uncomfortable? Does it have to do with ego, a subtle power shift in our relationship, a loss of some kind of control? Maybe. I admit to being more comfortable when I’m in control of things, but I hope that I’m mature enough to concede to whatever is best for our family at that moment, even if this means that I step away from a role that I’m most comfortable in. Our family life is changing too. As the girls get older and enter into tween and teen years, I’m realizing that it’s more important than ever that I’m present in their lives, to guide them into adulthood and be that role model. If that’s the role that I’m moving into and where I’m needed the most, then I accept that challenge, breadwinner or not.
There seems to be this notion that as you get older you settle into the comfort of knowing exactly who you are, but maybe this is an outdated idea, a relic of how life used to work. I’m finding the opposite to be true. I mean at the very core, I know who I am, but I don’t exactly know where I’m headed. I don’t think this is a bad thing because complacency isn’t something that I’ve ever been comfortable with anyway. Things change, life evolves, and I’d like to think that I can evolve too from one role to another. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the breadwinner again and maybe I never will. Maybe the business will eventually support us and I won’t have to think about our incomes as two separate sources. But in the end, does it matter? No, as partners, we’re in this together.