Does one need to earn money in order to be considered a productive member of society? As a married woman, do I need to have a salary comparable to my husband to be considered his equal? How much money should someone earn to be viewed as ‘successful’ or empowered? Is there a distinction between part-time employment and full-time employment when talking about meaningful work? These are just some of the questions I wonder about when the topic of work and career are discussed.
In the yuppie world of high-functioning, well-to-do tech workers, I see a huge amount of emphasis placed on where one works and how much they earn. While people may think this is confined to Silicon Valley, I’ve seen most tech workers in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Ottawa define themselves on the same lines. Google, Shopify, Amazon – companies considered the crème de la crème in Canada’s tech world, with each employee granted a swanky title to go along with their six-figure salaries. Programmer, designer, product manager, CTO, director, team lead – each worker establishing his/her place in the hierarchy of their company’s pecking order.
Don’t get me wrong, the lifestyle such jobs can afford is pretty nice. I know, because I live a life supported by tech money via my husband. We live in one of the richest neighbourhoods of Ottawa, buy our organic groceries and free-range meat from upscale grocers and butcheries, take multiple vacations throughout the year, and are quite comfortable in life. I’m not chastising the tech world, but I do notice an inordinate attachment to the jobs and lifestyles tech workers come to enjoy. Their lifestyle, supported by the money, provided by the billion dollar company that employs them, takes over their lives and almost all casual discussion at social gatherings with many such people present.
It’s in these circles that I find myself questioning the value of work and how our jobs come to define us. To me, I live a productive, meaningful life full of work. But because it’s not the kind of work that can be easily boxed in with a two-word title or three-letter acronym, I struggle with defining myself when everyone else is so easily able to. I teach, but I’m not an Ontario certified teacher. I write, but I’m not employed by a major news publication, nor have I written a book. I model, but you can’t find me in catalogues or on runways. I get paid to teach, write and model, yet I don’t consider myself a teacher, writer, or model. What is a yuppie wife to do?
The work that I’m actually most proud of doesn’t generate any income for me. The work I’ve put in over the past several years into my relationship and marriage to Sai, that I continue to do, is something I truly care about and value. The work I’ve put in with my family, especially my mother, throughout my 20s to help her and help myself after the death of my father is also something I regard very highly. The work I put in to maintain my home and make it pretty and comfortable; the work I put in to cook the kinds of elaborate and mouth-watering dishes I make every week; the work I put in to make sure my mind is sharp and up-to-date, that my body is healthy and I feed it the best food I can – all this takes a lot of daily, deliberate effort to make happen, yet, there’s no real recognition of it in society. ‘Work’ has come to mean only that which makes money and can offer us material comforts.
Being a woman in 2018, I feel even more confused at the realization that the things which make me the happiest and most fulfilled are actively being torn down by society all around me. Choosing to dedicate a huge chunk of my life to my husband, my family, our home and our future is seen as an option of diminishing returns, and something not worthy of discussing at parties or social gatherings. Before I meet someone new, I always think to myself “Who should I say I am today?” When I’m eventually asked the inevitable “What do you do?”, I’m prepared to say “I teach online” or “I’m a writer”, but neither of those answers provide a full or accurate picture of who I really am. I’m forced to choose one very small aspect of my life and amplify that so people can “get” me and know which box to place me in.
I fully understand that the reason I can live a laissez-faire lifestyle is because my husband has the kind of traditional job I have actively worked to stay away from. And while the prospect of a life-consuming career hasn’t been attractive to me, I know for lots of men and women, work is what drives them above everything else and they can’t imagine a life without the responsibilities and prestige their jobs bring. That’s just not the case for me and I’ve been lucky to be able to build a life for myself and my husband where we both get to do what we really love. However, the difference in social recognition between the two choices is quite noticeable.
I’m reminded of the proverb “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” A few decades ago when women were relegated to housewives and prevented from working (or had a very hard time being employed), all women were seen as an underclass to men. Now, there’s an underclass within women – those who choose to be homemakers or stay-at-home moms. Because being an empowered feminist means throwing out everything women used to do since it’s all seen as ingrained sexism in today’s world, those choosing to live similar lives to what their grandmothers had are looked upon with suspicion. Maybe such women are gold-diggers, or too privileged to have a “real” job. Maybe they’re dumb and weren’t able to find employment and now just mooch off their rich husbands. Or maybe they have controlling husbands who don’t let them work and they have no choice but to give in to the patriarchy. Old stereotypes have been replaced with new ones by Corporate Feminism™.
I’m not denying the existence of gold-digging wives and women in abusive marriages who can’t work because of their husbands. Those situations are very real and definitely exist, and I see the need for women to embrace feminism and fight for their rights all across the developing and underdeveloped world. In the Western world though, things are a little different. When I meet someone new (especially women), I try to determine how I’ll be viewed if I honestly spoke about who I am, what I do and how I choose to spend my time. Will they think that because I’m an immigrant, my husband doesn’t let me work? Or will they think I’m not smart enough to hold down a 9-5 job and plan a career? What if I told them that in the previous week, I cooked meals from Indian, Pakistani, Danish, and Mexican cuisines, went for yoga and Tai-Chi classes, watched a movie at Cineplex with my husband, read two books, modelled for a 3-hour life drawing workshop, wrote an article on Medium, went to my therapist, Skyped with my friend in Singapore, planted new herbs in my garden, and made all the reservations for an upcoming trip with Sai to the US?
Oh and also went to the butcher, the supermarket, the fish market, got my nails done, spent an entire afternoon thoroughly cleaning my stove oven, e-mailed back and forth with the electrician and landlord and property management company to have someone come over to fix the dryer (and be home for that too), surprised Sai with a romantic dinner, meditated everyday, spoke to my mother on the phone for over 3 hours as she dealt with personal issues, made a drawing in my sketchbook, and taught online ESL classes to students from Italy, Brazil, Korea and Japan.
I’m sure none of this would raise any eyebrows. How many of these tasks would be deemed worthy of being considered “work”? Will I have to separate the jobs I’m paid to do from the ones I’m not? Is work only something that happens when you stare at a computer screen for 5 hours non-stop? Or is work what you tell yourself you’re doing to “make the world a better place”? Of all the tech workers I’ve met in the last 10 years (I also lived in downtown San Francisco before Sai and I were married), I’m pretty certain the only people whose lives they were working to improve were their own.
So, what is “work”? Is it just having a career? I think the amount of dedication and commitment one needs to really carve out a career for themselves is very admirable, and only someone with a high level of focus and discipline can succeed in building the kind of career they truly want. But what happens when that drive is all that defines you in life? To me, as a society, I feel we have come to expect this and don’t find anything wrong with living such a unidimensional existence. For people like me who reject that model of being, it can be an isolating experience to not have a catch-all label establishing my place, and worth, in society.
Maybe I’ll just rebel and start calling myself a housewife.