Not Working, Still Contributing?

When my old office reorganized and I lost my job last fall, I (perhaps naively) assumed I’d have little trouble finding a new position at my former institution or elsewhere. I’m smart, experienced, and professional, and I tend to leave a good impression wherever I have worked. However, five months and six (mostly very positive) interviews later, it has become clear to me that I will not be returning to work before giving birth to my first child (note: my previous employer did NOT know that I was pregnant when my position was eliminated; I suspect the plans for the departmental re-organization were likely in motion before I even conceived). This means that I have spent the past few months, and will be spending the next year or so, doing what is economically considered to be “nothing”.

At first, I really was doing more or less nothing, laid low by bouts of nausea, insomnia, and general resentment over the fact that all my best-laid plans for how to financially support my future child had been altered, and my career put on indefinite pause through no fault of my own. After a few weeks of this, however, the clouds lifted (both figuratively and literally; despite the snow, Vancouver also had some lovely sunny weather in early December—very cold, very Christmassy). I started to sleep better, eat better (once I could keep my usual staple foods down again) and just generally enjoy a slower, more relaxed pace of life (easy to do while still receiving severance pay). I would have liked to return to work before having a baby, but as this has not been in the cards, I have surprised myself by feeling actually optimistic about the whole thing. (Note: I am aware my “optimistic” situation [like receiving five months of severance] is somewhat privileged compared to many others for whom a termination could have threatened eviction, repossession of a vehicle, or other devastating financial consequences).

There have certainly been disappointments (like doing quite well in a job competition but just not managing to clinch it) and dark clouds in my sunny days. One of the hardest things for me to deal with has been the change in my economic status in the household. My husband is self-employed. When he started freelancing, I brought home more money than him. As his career took off and I decided to take a part-time position (70% of full-time, albeit on a better salary scale), the contributions we made to our shared family income began to even out, with TC making considerably more than me some months, depending on the jobs that came his way. Regardless of our comparative incomes, though, what I always felt I brought to the table was stability—I brought the guaranteed paycheque, the extended health and dental benefits, the MSP subsidy and the pension. As TC’s career advanced and the projects he worked on gained more professional recognition, I was content to hold steady in a job I loved doing that gave me career satisfaction, work-life balance, and perks that worked for us.

All that has, quite simply, changed. Now that my severance has run out, it is solely TC’s income (and hopefully 50 weeks or so of EI maternity/parental benefits) that our little family will rely on. This is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for a person who has spent the better part of the past 12 years mostly taking care of herself (albeit not without some occasional much-appreciated assistance from parents and grandparents along the way). I’ve always depended on TC emotionally, but I haven’t always depended on him financially.

Of course, I do KNOW that carrying (and soon, caring for) an infant has value, even if I’m not pulling in a paycheque. I know that my efforts over the past few months to take care of our home and prepare for the baby so that TC can have more time to focus and meet his deadlines have been appreciated, even if there is no dollar sign attached to these activities (not that TC hasn’t been helping out around the apartment as well, it’s just that I have more time to). And I know that my husband loves and respects me, and doesn’t think me useless or unproductive just because I no longer have a job.

But I’m just not used to not having a professional identity and an economic value, even in my marriage. I guess I forgot that marrying someone isn’t just promising to take care of them, it’s agreeing to BE taken care of, and it’s really not that strange. When I think about it, many of the couples I know (both from my parents’ generation and mine) have spent significant portions of their relationships in economic situations where one partner doesn’t work or works less than the other. Life throws curve-balls (getting fired, a sick family member, a move to a new city where only one of the partners has secured a job) and different needs (for childcare or health or mental/emotional well-being) must be met. This is totally normal and I accept it in the abstract. I know that these kinds of arrangements don’t mean that the non-working partner isn’t contributing to their relationship. It’s just that these contributions aren’t measurable the way a bank balance is, and I’m not used to being so…intangible.

Since graduating from high school, the world at large has conditioned me to believe that my worth, in great part, relies on not being a financial burden to others, on independence, and on being able to “pay my own way”. Now that this is no longer possible for me (at least for now), I need a new paradigm for self-examination. Which isn’t, I suppose, a bad thing. Just a new one.

Sometimes I AM super useful around the house. Other times…not so much. 😛

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