Report from the Field: But Do You Have to Work?

The question came at lunch with my department chair in the middle of discussions about the future of the department, and also about my future at the college. We were talking about dream jobs. In between bites of sushi, my colleague, a senior poet, interjected a seemingly innocent question. “But, you know, do you have to work?” he said. I flushed. I tightened before I could answer. I calmed my face before catching his eye. I regret to report that I stammered out a confusing answer that said something like “I like to work and I need to work because work is good.” I was flummoxed.

In case you’re wondering, I love my work. I believe in working. But what I felt immediately was inarticulate shame. Shame because, yes, it’s true: Right now my husband has a better healthcare plan and makes more money than I do, and, if fate keeps him safe on his current path, he probably always will. At this moment, if push came to shove, we could also probably mostly get by on his salary, maybe by cutting out childcare—which would imply that I really couldn’t work, because I’d become our childcare. We’d be cutting it close, but I’m a poet, after all. I lived on hand-me-downs and freebox furniture and lentils in Brooklyn. For many years of my adult life I was intimately aware of the whereabouts of each dollar on my ledger: I remember when a friend of mine and I found a twenty dollar bill on the street and called it “margaritas from the universe.”

And I am aware of my own precarity: I have lived close to the bone so I could keep writing. When my husband and I became domestic partners before marrying, it was the first time in my adult life I had any margin for error; any steady access to healthcare; the first time turning my ankle on the street or getting strep throat wouldn’t mean a major financial setback. For the first time when things went wrong it wasn’t a gut-busting catastrophe. I’m not going to lie: This was good. It is more relaxing to move between posts on the tricky freelance and academic ladder when if the intricately rigged wiring that is your life snaps, you can at least afford duct tape to jerry-rig it up. It is nice to have some padding against disaster. Some years passed. I used his healthcare. I won a fellowship that provided a house for a year. We lived rent-free and saved a down-payment. We bought a car, had a kid, bought a house. He lost his job, then found another, then got wildly sick and was hospitalized. I had a job, lost a job, got a job, had healthcare. We got ready to have a second kid. My job ended. I wrote. I applied for grants. We used his healthcare. Now, nearing forty, we have one kid in preschool, another on the way. We have mortgage payments, health care bills, a ten-year-old Subaru with a leaky tire. I feel wildly lucky. Obladee-obladaa-life goes on.

I told you that: you’re welcome to it. But the truth is: it’s nobody’s business. Indeed, after lunch, after shame, came indignance. After all, what the hell kind of question was that, anyway? I teach. I’ve published two well-regarded collections of poetry and have a third on the way. I review books for national venues. I have a Pushcart Prize. I have worked, I do work, I will keep working. I guess the real question is: Why on earth should I, particularly, be asked if I need to work–and what does that question actually mean? What does it stand for? I suspect most men I know have never been asked it. But many women I know have, in one way or another. Indeed, I’ve been asked “Do you have to work” about five or six times in the last few years. I’ll note I am asked this question exclusively by male colleagues or superiors, usually those who are either in competition with me for jobs or who might be in the position to hire me.

Indeed, I have begun to feel that this question about work acts as a bizarre micro-aggression, one that holds at its root some fantasy by the speaker that I might not be a real colleague or competitor or equal, but instead a dilettante—one of those women who you know you don’t have to take seriously because they are rich, and might otherwise be playing tennis or doing macramé. The rhetoric surrounding this fantasy is strange; sometimes I am the object of this vision and sometimes it’s just implied that this silly woman is out there, that we all know we don’t wholly respect her, that she can be an object of our communal condescension. “I thought you didn’t have to work,” said one prominent male poet over burritos near a San Francisco writer’s retreat. “You know, she has that plum job but they’re essentially living on her husband’s money,” said another guy I otherwise adore about a mutual friend of ours. The guy and I were, at the time, competing for a lecturer spot at the local great university. I felt him size me up casually. “But there are some women who really do want to be adjuncts,” said an older professor at a college where I was picking up a summer class. “You know, their income comes from elsewhere, so they just teach for the love.”

Oh, really? Let me not stammer. Let’s be clear: I don’t love to adjunct. I do love teaching, but I don’t “teach for the love.” I do not work because “I have to” or “ I don’t have to” but because I want to do the work I love at the highest level I can achieve. And as I navigate the world of applying for jobs and fellowships, I have begun to think of this seemingly casual rhetoric as full of poison. I was recently talking with Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen, who of course, knows her micro-aggressions quite well. She was discussing the painful experience of having her high-school teachers tell her that they were “surprised” when she got into Williams College–a feeling she called “white surprise,”–a racist assumption wrapped in a compliment. I found myself telling my own story, about the nagging feeling of put down by “do you have to work.” “Do you have to work?” said Claudia. She raised her eyebrows. “I have never been asked that. That is not a question that has ever been directed at me.” We looked at one another.

Indeed, here is another troubling thing about being asked “do you have to work.” I suspect it’s a question that may be reserved for white women, or white straight middle-to-middle upper class women—a group of people who do access real economic privilege through race and class and also through marriage, and who do sometimes have enough luxury to exercise the option of opting out of the job market. I’m not unaware of the fact that this privilege is real. But I also argue that this privilege is limited, both within the job market and outside it, and that “opting out” or “shifting down” or somehow being seen as someone who “doesn’t have to work” comes with a lot of costly strings attached. It’s also worth noting that aggressive phrases that say “I’m surprised and really never expected that you’d be succeeding” and aggressive phrases that say “I expect that you’re only succeeding because you’re living on someone else’s dime” both have dismissive sentiments at their root. Why would we like to imagine a class of people who we are surprised are succeeding? Why would we like to imagine this world of women that (haven’t yet but really could and should) opt out? What is behind this need to dismiss? What is it for? And which classes of people do we collectively agree are ok to dismiss? It’s worth asking. It’s worth being suspicious of ourselves.

Indeed, the image of the woman who “doesn’t have to work” carries its own (white, straight) cashmere coated social stigma: Here in Poor Little Rich Women, a semi-anthropological piece about trophy wives of Park Avenue we see an extreme, almost exaggerated example of particularly pedigreed women sacrificing their own financial independence in order to gain some extreme privileges that come from being married to very wealthy men. We also see that those women make a pretty intense gamble: they get rich husbands, but they only gain any economic freedom as a measure of how well they conform to the roles set up in their marriages. They access a very circumscribed kind of power. It’s also interesting to note that the article focuses on the uneasy bargain struck by the married women, rather than say, the curiousness that we live in a society with such enormous income disparity and segregation along sex lines, in which real flows of wealth are controlled by men, in which venture capitalists and bankers and other titans of industry are men, in which these men do business almost solely in the company of other men.

Put simply: it’s easier to disparage those dopey well dressed rich woman who’ve bargained their way into moneyed marriages than, say, to look hard at the sources of the inequity itself. It’s interesting to note the kind of scorn that these women often face doesn’t seem to extend to their partners, the men, the patriarchy—just to the women who are seen as having become financially extraneous through marriage, in partnership with a man who earns enough to make them seem subsidiary. In other words, the handcuffs are golden, but they are still handcuffs.

Meanwhile—even as we look at those women who do opt out, let’s not pretend that the workforce is so wonderful to women either: Whatever private balance a couple strikes, women who work face persistent salary inequity and abysmal family leave and maternity leave policies that stack the odds against parity in both the workplace and in marriage. In my field, the odds are long. Statistics tell me that because I’m a woman, they become longer: I’m less likely to be promoted or mentored by colleagues, less likely to get good evaluations from my students, less likely even to be allowed to finish full sentences in meetings. Statistics tell me that I am certainly less likely—especially now that I have two children—to get tenure. I know these odds are at play. I work anyway. My husband, is, for the record, a terrific partner. But our lives are sticky with the world’s riggings, and I don’t know any couple that swings a 50/ 50 on everything. Partnership and family bring some privileges. They also bring hard work. No partnership is a permanent cushion. Two years ago this summer my husband nearly died. It was terrifying for both of us. I don’t take our life together for granted.

I tell you this, and I ask again: Is any of this relevant to my ability to teach literature well? To my drive or ambition? To my ability to write in my field, to mentor students in a department? I think it is not.

I got through that lunch. I talked about my dream job more. But after it was over I felt myself turning my colleague’s question over in my head with increasing frustration. Nobody asks Claudia Rankine if she needs to work. Nobody asks my husband if he needs to work. I know lots of gay couples where one partner works and one doesn’t and no one asks them about it. I wish no one would ever ask me that question again.

I am nearing forty. My jobs and childbirth have fallen so that I have never had a paid maternity leave. So far what we save has gone back into the act of surviving another year, weathering another crisis. I work to be safe. I work to pay for childcare, for healthcare, to retire. I work because I was taught to believe in my voice and its power. I value my library card, my vote. I love the thrill of finding a student who has never been told she can write and telling her that she is one heck of a writer. I work because I believe in education. I work because of my mother. I work because when my son and my daughter ask me what I do I want to say writer. I work because when my son and my daughter ask me what I do I want to say professor, director, editor, dean. I want to tell my daughter all the doors in the world are open to her and mean it.