Five years ago, when I first started working from home as a freelance writer, my husband and I had come to an understanding. “If you can’t make this work within a year,” said Michael, “you’ll have to get another job.”
Within six months, I’d matched my previous salary.
Elated, and feeling confident, I rewarded myself with a desk chair. One of those ergonomic types, with the webbed back that gives just a little. Until then, I’d been pulling over a hard-backed chair from the kitchen.
After that, I continued to coast along, getting a lot of referral work and even landing a couple regular gigs.
When the economy went to shit another six months after that, I floundered for a bit. A newspaper I’d been copyediting for folded. A blogging client cut back on budget. Still, I rolled with the punches. I diversified. I learned how to be a businesswoman. I slowly regained ground. And just a couple years later—despite the natural ups and downs of freelancing—I managed to finish paying off $10,000 worth of old credit card debt.
Things were going well for Michael, too. He finally left the copywriting job he’d been hating for seven and a half long years, after landing a web development job at a startup in Manhattan. It came with a nice boost in salary and, eventually, he was making over twice what he used to make. Even better: He loved what he did.
Still, things aren’t always easy, even when things are going well.
Every month, I roll my chair close to the desk, and scrutinize my bank account. Will I be able to make it until the next paycheck arrives? Or should I just ask Michael for money? Because he pays the bulk of the bills, I try to avoid asking. I don’t want to see that look on his face—that one that insinuates that I’ll never make it without him.
Then there’s the issue of housework.
“Could you please clean the dishes in the sink?” I asked one day, as I was simultaneously sautéing veggies in one pan, stirring up a concoction in the stockpot, and chopping up onions. Chicken stock had splashed onto my top, there was a sprinkling of salt and pepper all over my pants, and I was wearing onion goggles to keep from crying.
“I just walked in,” said Michael. “I’d like to relax on the couch for a little bit.”
“And I’d like to snuggle with the cats and a good book,” I said, “but I just stopped working 15 minutes ago, I’ve been juggling multiple pots and pans so I could have dinner ready for the both of us, and it would be nice if you could contribute.”
“You think I’m not contributing?” he said, as if I was referring to the state of our marriage rather than the state of our dinner. “I’m paying all the bills! You have no right to say that when I’m working hard to keep a roof over our heads.”
And though we already sounded like a sitcom cliché: “Like the work I do doesn’t matter?” I responded. “Like I’m not allowed to ask for anything because your salary is so astronomically higher than mine? I’m so glad you feel fine throwing my income in my face every time we have a goddamn argument.”
And we were off. He stomped his feet and clenched his fists and flared his nostrils.
I flared my nostrils even more. I am fucking fantastic when it comes to flaring my nostrils. I threw a dish towel to the floor and flung my onion goggles across the kitchen counters, where they bounced against the backsplash.
Our voices kept rising as we tried to out-shout each other. My hands trembled as I continued preparing dinner in the midst of our fight. We eventually ended up at opposite ends of the house, seething.
Sometimes I suspect he likes having that one-up on me. I mean, these arguments happen less frequently than they once did, and we’re a lot less ruthless than we once were—I think that’s called growing up—but when we do see fit to raise our voices and stomp our feet and treat each other terribly, he invariably throws down that favorite trump card of his: The fact that we’re both working hard, but he’s the one keeping us afloat. The fact that I have no right to complain about anything, because he’s the one keeping a roof over our head.
He’s carrying me.
He’s carrying us.
I wouldn’t say that this is an issue particular to writers. I feel that the power dynamic within a marriage is inevitably changed any time one person makes significantly more or less than another.
But as a writer, I can’t help but question the value of the work I’m doing in comparison to the work he’s doing—not because I don’t value words, but because I don’t know what I’m bringing to our marriage if I’m not bringing in money.
Even when I accomplish big things—when I break into a new publication or land a literary agent or have another project mosey my way thanks to word of mouth—I feel that it is not enough. Because more often than not, my biggest accomplishments aren’t my biggest paychecks.
So what good am I? Where is my worth in all of this?
Just the other month, freelance journalist Nate Thayer called out The Atlantic for asking him to do work for free. The discussion that ensued was an interesting one, especially as it pertains to the limits of digital publishing, but one of the points made in a post over at Gawker really leapt out at me: the fact that the writing game is “rigged for people who already have money.” It felt true.
Every morning, I creep out from under my bed sheets when my body says it’s ready. I slip into a ridiculous pair of cat slippers and shuffle my way downstairs, to a beautifully furnished home office and a pot of freshly brewed coffee. I revise my book proposal. I futz about on Twitter. I pitch publications that pay barely anything, because I love them. I love the work they do. And I want to be a part of that.
I have a husband. I have a net. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. I wouldn’t be able to. I’d still be working my way up the ladder at an academic book publisher with a small marketing budget, wearing ill-fitting dress pants from Express and uncomfortable shoes and not creating anything that was mine and mine alone.
Being married allows me to have the life I have now. Being married allows me to spend all this time on things that may never bring me very much money.
And while living this life makes me feel gratitude, I will also always feel extreme, crushing guilt.
Last year, I was on the phone with a reporter from a national magazine, talking about solopreneurship and personal branding. We were having a lovely chat when he asked me about my income.
“I make about $30,000 a year,” I told him.
“You can live on that?” he asked. He asked me what I’d do if a media company offered me a staff position at $75,000.
“I’d turn it down,” I said. “No question.”
“What about $100,000?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said. “I never want to give this up.”
About a week later, my husband lost his job.
When Michael called me on the phone to tell me, I assured him it would all be okay. But when I hung up the phone, I sobbed for a while, terrified of what would become of us. I started looking at job ads on MediaBistro and JournalismJobs and Ed2010. Was it my turn? I asked myself. Was it time for me to take care of us?
Within just a few weeks, Michael had a new, even higher-paying job.
He’s still supporting us.
I think it’s safe to say I’ll never out-earn Michael. And to be honest, I don’t want to. I don’t want my income to be the thing that defines my success. I want to create something meaningful. I want to write with openness and honesty and humility and humor. I want readers to read my words and suddenly feel comfortable creating a dialogue around topics they may previously have found uncomfortable or embarrassing. I want to connect.
But damn if I don’t feel guilty wanting that.
About the author: Steph Auteri (@stephauteri) is a freelance writer who has overshared on Babble, The Frisky, Nerve, LearnVest, and a slew of other print and online publications. She also regularly collaborates with sexual health and wellness professionals, helping them build their brands through quality content marketing. If you’d like to read more about yoga and the writing life, or see gratuitous cat photos, you can stalk Steph on Twitter.