Until last February, when I had my first child, I had never not worked. But then a three-month maternity leave from an editing job turned into a six-month hiatus while I cared for my daughter, and then six months rolled into nine. One day, I went to the New York Public Library to do some research. This was a treat for me — to leave Brooklyn for a few hours ALONE and sit in a library to read. I got coffee and sat on the steps, but then decided to leave the library and go shopping instead. I realized, sitting there, that I hadn’t really shopped for myself in months. The experience — formerly mundane, I generally hate shopping — was delightful simply because it didn’t happen much anymore.
I browsed at a few stores, and then, heading back to the library, I thought, I should have bought that dress at H&M, so I decided to return to the store. As I was paying for the dress, I realized: For the first time in two decades, I didn’t have my own money. Not really. Whatever money was going to pay for this, it wasn’t mine. My husband had earned it.
I do want to be clear that I consider my husband’s money to be my own and I have zero qualms at this stage in life about spending it. The division of labor (though I don’t consider caring for a child to be “labor” so much as it is “living") runs like this: I take care of our daughter, I manage our finances, I take out the trash, I run the errands and cook the meals, I take the dog to the vet, and I call the plumber when a pipe bursts. He works. At a job. For money. He works a lot and very hard. We both work equal amounts of hard, and we’re OK with this arrangement. Therefore, I have earned the right to spend his money, which isn’t, in fact, his. It’s ours.
Still, through almost a decade of marriage, we mostly had kept our money separate: We had a joint checking account for bills, but we each had our own personal accounts where our paychecks were deposited twice a month. When bill time came around, I simply wrote a check from my husband’s bank account and deposited the money into our joint account. And even though he always made more money than I, we had always split our rent (and subsequently, our mortgage) and bills equally. I was simply left with much less in my account after paying the bills than he had. But after my daughter was born, I stopped making any money at all. We merged all of our accounts together since mine would've quickly emptied left on its own.
None of this reasoning made the pill any less bitter to swallow as I stood in front of the cashier at H&M, swiping my American Express for a $45 dress. I hadn’t relied on another human being to pay for my clothes since I was 18 years old. It felt weird, foreign, and terrifying. I was used to budgeting in my mind — just ballparking — a month’s expenses. For several years I knew that after paying my bills and adding to my savings account, I would have a specific amount left over for going out or books or clothes — spending money. Suddenly, with the baby and the joblessness, my whole formula for living and money was gone. What now? How much money did I have? None? Would every dollar I spent that was not for groceries or baby gear sting me? Should I curb my spending? Should I stop getting my nails done? I wasn’t sure: Part of me knew that, since I’m not an extravagant spender to begin with, I wasn’t a huge burden on the family finances even without my income. But the other part of me revolted: I cannot live this way. Or can I? I thought through my recent purchases. Surely, I told myself, I’m not spending much on “myself,” the human Laura. Surely, most of my spending is for the common good: the baby’s diapers and clothing and toys I didn’t blink at; the groceries, the bills, the dog food. But a perusal of my credit card bill gave me pause: There were books — not child care or even “work” related — which were all me. There was makeup I bought from Sephora. And I shuddered when I saw gifts I had purchased for my husband.
I never dreamed the entire time I was pregnant that I wouldn't just go back to work after three months, that I could potentially spend the rest of my life completely reliant on my husband financially. Now it seems completely naive, but it had literally never occurred to me.
For my entire adult life — until now — I’ve been employed full-time. Employment followed me through college and grad school, a stint in a band, and a move to Brooklyn from Pittsburgh to live with a guy I had only known for two months. I paid my own way through college, and have supported myself since I was 18. I worked mostly because I had to — there simply wasn’t anyone else around who was going to take care of me or pay my rent and tuition, but also because it’s how I was built. I enjoy it. I enjoyed waiting tables, and was always the person taking extra shifts or working weekends when I started blogging, even when the latter didn’t translate into extra income. But the economics of working have always been clear to me as well: I would sink or swim by my own hand. Mostly I swam, and I took comfort in balancing my checkbook over the years, knowing that I was independent.
Until I wasn't.
When my child was 6 months old, I began casually interviewing for jobs that piqued my interest. I took meetings and talked to people about new opportunities — editing jobs I would have killed for a crack at just a year earlier — and here I was, moseying along, unsure of “what I wanted.” And I'm aware that even being able to consider "what I wanted" is itself a privilege; I am fortunate that my family could afford to consider the option of me simply staying home, with no dependable income, because we could live comfortably on my husband’s salary. But being able to stay home and actually doing it — a previously inconceivable life choice just months earlier — are two very different things. Still, I was faced with this cold reality: I simply didn’t value the idea of work as I previously had.
By 9 months, my daughter was actually fun to hang out with: She stayed awake for longer stretches, she laughed at my jokes. We were having a good time and my new mom anxieties were passing. I was happier as a mother than I had thought I would be. My husband and I were married for seven years before trying in earnest to have a baby, mostly because of my ambivalence about having one. We had a full life together, and I have always been very, very busy on my own: with work, reading, cooking, and sewing. I sometimes had trouble imagining how or where a baby, and then child, would fit into that. So though I wasn’t in a hurry to have a child, I knew that we did want one — eventually. And then, “eventually” arrived. During pregnancy I told myself it would be OK. The baby wouldn’t be that much work, really, and I could get back to some semblance of a normal life after a few months. I wasn’t prepared for the reality that I might not want to go back to “normal.”
I reasoned that freelancing would give me the flexibility I now wanted: to work from home, or not work on a given day, if my daughter was sick. I thought that some time away from me would also be good for her, socially and emotionally. But I also knew that financially, it would be hard: I would need some form of child care in order to get any writing done, which would add to our expenses, and making any sort of living freelancing is hard to work out on paper, let alone in reality.
Due almost completely to a conversation with my husband Josh, I decided to give freelancing a shot. “In your ideal scenario,” he said, “what would you do? You can do exactly what you want to do. Don’t make a decision out of fear.” Well, that’s a refreshing perspective! I thought.
That was more than six months ago. Since then, I’ve made more money from my writing, which has helped some of the weirdness pass away. But it’s nothing close to what I spend just by being alive, and I can’t help the thought from crossing my mind every now and again: I am living beyond my means. My means of nearly zero. Even now there are days where, out of guilt or some feeling I can’t name, I’ll pay for my lipstick at Sephora out of my savings account, the money I squirrelled away for years, never knowing how much it would mean in the future. Coming to terms with the fact that my personal expenses didn’t simply disappear when my income did has been surprisingly difficult.
The freelancing experiment is going well: I’m writing more and adjusting to a new way of life. I feel confident that in the next half year I’ll bring home more money than I have in the last half. But my new reality is that, for the next few years, income inequality will be a daily fact of life in my marriage, even more than it was for the first decade. I'm viewing freelancing as essentially a stopgap during the early years of my child’s life: I get the fulfillment of spending some of my time working, with flexibility and near-constant contact with my daughter. I am fortunate and extremely grateful for the opportunity to do so.
In many ways, I am actually “having it all” — except a salary, of course. If I have learned anything “on the job” this past year, it’s that the U.S. is still failing, and failing so hard, the millions of women who have children each year and have fewer or no options. We don’t routinely provide health care, maternity leave, or child care to families, the last of which is a necessity to go back to work. Many parents don’t have paid sick days, or vacation time to spend as needed when a child inevitably gets sick or school is canceled.
My mother stayed home with her children for almost 15 years. I’m not sure it’s what she wanted to do: My parents simply couldn’t make any math work where she could earn enough to offset child care expenses. So yes, I feel fortunate to even have been able to ask myself the question: What do I want to do?
I still don’t have an answer.