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

July 28, 2015 | by Tess Taylor | 18 | Tagged: , , , , ,

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.


Tess TaylorTESS TAYLOR’s chapbook The Misremembered World was selected by Eavan Boland and published by the Poetry Society of America.  Her poetry and nonfiction appears widely. The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, THE FORAGE HOUSE, “stunning” and it was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Tess is currently the on air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered.  Her second book WORK & DAYS is due out in 2016.

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

  • Erin R says:

    Thank you for this article! My husband and I used to work at the same private high school, where his salary was more than ten thousand higher than mine, with the gap increasing year by year. He still works there, but now I’m a poet and a tutor. I make about a third of what I used to and am on his health insurance, but I’m working five days a week and earning as much as I can. It incenses me when my former colleagues ask me what I do with all my free time now or make little comments about how nice the “life of leisure” must be. Poetry is work. Tutoring is work. Nurturing is work. Teaching is work. Teaching non-STEM subjects is *still* work. Nice to know I’m not alone out here.

  • Shayna says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I have been trying to articulate why I want to go back to work when I don’t ‘have to’, when the money I make will probably just cancel out the cost of the childcare and other help necessary to replace all that I do for the family- for years we’ve thought it just would be too difficult to make it work and not financially ‘worth it’…but you said it exactly right. This made me cry, really. Recently I heard my daughter tell someone that her mom ‘used to be a teacher, but now she’s retired’. I wilted a bit. I love this- “I want to tell my daughter all the doors in the world are open to her and mean it.” I want my children to be proud of me and to know that I really AM a teacher – I’m ready to come out of retirement! I’m so glad to have seen this article.

  • Sara says:

    My partner just got a job after 3.5 years unemployed. He is particularly unvarnished, but he said to me (5 days after announcing the job, 2 days into it) that if I had a “more motherly instinct I would not work.”

    I’ll have a hard time ever putting into words how that made me feel!

    • Eliza says:

      Oh. If he were more fatherly, would he have remained unemployed? NO choice is wrong. And every choice made comes with its own package of society’s expectations and judgments, some of which hold a kernel of others’ wishful thinking. Life’s too short to give them much credence.

  • Picking nits says:

    “Jerry-build” or “jury-rig”–but, please, not “jerry-rig.”

    I know I shouldn’t let this one bother me, but it does. I’m hearing it too often.

    • Lynn Melnick says:

      The term “jerry-rig” appears in The American Heritage Dictionary as an alternative to those you prefer. I’m sorry it bothers you, though!

  • Whatever says:

    Why would someone ask that question? Perhaps they are a bit edgy about their own situations. Maybe they are the primary providers of money in their family, having decent paying jobs, absolutely having to work because the family needs the money – while their spouses, doing more of the childcare and housework anyway – do not abolutely have to but choose to. one person has choice while another does not, one person works for self fulfilment and vanity while the other has to bear down and do it because the world makes it so. the person who does it optionally does it because they want a voice and the person who does it because they must, they have to silence their voice and do the work that is needed. so perhaps somehow there is another story here, the opposite of the one being told.

  • Susann Codish says:

    Beautifully written. You’ve woven your own particular experience into the weave of what we – middle-class white women – experience all through our careers. Thank you.

  • Dan Breau says:

    A brave article about women who work or want to work. The question, “Do you need to work?” packs sexist and ageist insults into five words. It implies that there’s something wrong with women of any age who have or want to have a job with decent pay and benefits, and something wrong with men over 65 who are still working. Work is fun. It’s invigorating. It’s respectable. It’s remunerative. In our culture, money is one of the biggest measures of a person’s worth. Earning money gives people, particularly women, power and a voice. We all do better when we don’t ask if you need to work.

  • beeluci says:

    The article reads to me like a lengthy explanation of why your somewhat huffy and defensive feelings in reaction to the question, Do you have to work?, were warranted.

    I have a different take on this. I think the question should be asked and answered more often and more directly than is the norm. I think that your huffy response while understandable should be taken with a grain of salt. I think more conflicted feelings on this topic should be vented. You are not wrong, but you are privileged.

    I say this from tons of what seems to me now to be ugly experience. I was an adjunct for quite awhile despite the fact that I needed a ‘real job’. I went through all my savings and was rejected from every full time job I applied for before I found a ‘real job.’ Thankfully I am well paid and expect to be restored to financial health pretty soon. I am lucky, I could have been destitute. The problem with the polite silence you seem to advocate is that it is part of the silence that surrounds the destitution of many adjuncts. It is part of a system of exploitation.

    When I was an adjunct I had a sense of cognitive dissonance on how excessively I was being exploited. There was this collegial aspect to the job which concealed a multitude of sins. But the situation is terrible and I think the silence you advocate is one of those things that have to go. For example, if in fact certain jobs should only ever be done by those who don’t need to work, it should be absolutely clear and accepted by all, perhaps even in the job description. Otherwise adjuncting is more of a scam (or hoax) than a job.

    In fact the whole writing field is populated with people who don’t need to work. But it’s a secret. So young people don’t know what they are getting into and that deception is a problem. I think everyone should know that reality and also everyone should know who exactly is in which category. I think it should be, for example, an input into financial prizes, and travel grants, and all the rest. This is not about feelings, in my view: yours or mine. It’s about financial realities.

  • Song-sung says:

    wow. The the pettiness of this complaint would be hilarious if it weren’t so heartfelt.

    & why would no one ask Claudia Rankine if she has to work? Because a black woman would never have a means of support that might allow her to write full time? Sheesh, the poor guy didn’t ask if you needed to write. He just wondered if you might be able to devote yourself to your writing and not have to teach, or arts administrate, or waitress. If your answer wasn’t ‘Yeah, we can’t survive on my spouse’s salary,’ or “Yeah, I contribute to my retired parents healthcare costs,” or “Yeah, I’m a single mother, or “Yeah, I have thousands of dollars in student loans…” he got his answer. You don’t have to ‘work,’ and could have a full-time writing career, which believe it or not most of us who spend our days teaching and lying awake worrying about whether we will get tenure, since we will lose everything if we don’t, fantasize not a little about. I hope this brute never asks, “How are you?” or “Do you like this sunny weather?” You’ll need a lecture hall to address the offense.

    • Lynn Melnick says:

      (Note: I cut the end of your last sentence in this comment because we don’t allow that kind of insult-hurling in our comments.)

    • Nancy Thomas says:

      So women have to “justify” working…no wonder you just don’t get it. My career does not need a justification – all HUMANS need to work, have a job and financial surety. It’s not “white men in 1950’s defined gender roles get first pick at the jobs” – though it feels like that still exists in many fields.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you a thousand times over. You articulated perfectly the feelings and frustration I have felt for years.

  • Megan Byrne says:

    I came by your post through another post. I am glad I did. I have worked all my life. I can’t think of any reason why I would not work. I have five children, all who are now grown and successful in a variety of fields. All are independent, think for themselves and have a healthy appreciation of the value of work. My husband is a writer and poet, I design and make quilts. We have only been able to pursue these passions since the children have grown and left home. That is the choice we made then, although we often say that given the chance again we would have pursued our love of the arts rather than the love of eating and private schools! I remember my first interview for a job back in the 80’s. I was asked what my husband did for a living and did I plan on having more children. i still am a little outraged by the fact that the job was in nursing and the panel were all male, yet none of the male applicants were asked those questions. Today those questions would not be asked. I would like to see a time when my gender has no bearing on my employability, my job choice or whether or not I choose to work in a paid capacity. Your post has reinforced my belief that as women it is important to keep the conversation going and to keep remembering that change is happening only because we are speaking out.

  • Barbara says:

    Thank you for writing about this as I’ve faced a similar question over and over during my career as I am married to a surgeon. It doesn’t matter that I am an educated, highly skilled, registered nurse making my own contributions in the health care field. In my case the question inevitably comes from other women…”aren’t you Dr. so-and-so’s wife?”…followed by incredulous looks and questions of why on earth am I working. These comments are made frequently and have picked up since he retired a few years ago while I still work. I calmly tell people that I love my work and try to end the conversation but it still rankles.

    The assumption is that we only work for money and if the need to earn money is no longer a factor, then who in their right mind would work? It is a sad and cynical assessment.

  • Leslie says:

    I’m wary of adding a comment, but here I go. I don’t see the offense in that question, and believe it’s a reflection on the person posing the question instead of an indictment against you. Perhaps the speaker is trying to find his or her own way and wondered how you came to choose the path you are on. Whether one has to work or chooses to work is a serious consideration for some, and I suspect that though this question was directed to you, it isn’t about you.

    Maybe I’m in the wrong generation to understand this irritation. I’m in my 60s — a teacher turned technical writer who got caught up in the 2008 financial melt-down at a difficult age for redefining myself again. And I’m a widow who wasn’t prepared financially to face the last third of my life alone, but I write and work and live for the joy of each day’s accomplishments. And the bills get paid and no one has ever asked me if I have to work. I love to work — maybe that shows. Or maybe it’s obvious that I need to work so they don’t ask. I truly don’t know.

  • Stella says:

    I think your complaint comes from a place of privilege. I work in the performing arts where most people live very hand to mouth. The question,”do you have to work” generally means “beyond any performance work you get.” I also see that the folks who are able to primarily focus on creating are either one of the few commercially successful, or uniquely suited to living in poverty or supported by parents/partner/trust fund, etc. People entering the field tend to take some time to see the reality of this, often mistaking the way financially supported artists keep it together as a personal trait rather than a lucky circumstance. I actually wish people would ask the question more often. Male or female. I think cards on the table make for a healthier sense of reality.

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