Operating in the Negative
On paper, government paper, I barely exist. My Social Security statements show the gaping hole in my employment history. I have not brought in a regular salary for almost a decade. I have nothing squirreled away in my own Social Security egg, which reminds me that I’d be basically piss broke should my husband ever decide that I am expendable. Those zeroes send me into a panic.
According to MOTHERS (Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights), motherhood is the number-one risk factor for poverty in old age. As a group, working mothers make less money than anyone else because they opt for flexibility and less hours over high pay and overtime. And many, like me, lose valuable Social Security credits by taking years off from the workforce to concentrate on family caregiving. To add insult to injury, women still outlive men, meaning we eventually depend on Social Security benefits longer, and almost completely once other retirement funds run out.
What is a mother’s work worth? According to our federal government, NOTHING. The Bush Administration is currently pushing for Social Security reform and privatization, an act that the National Partners for Women and Families says will “disproportionately harm women.” On the flip side, the National Association of Mothers’ Centers supports Social Security credits to family caregivers, who they say provide one trillion dollars worth of free caregiving in the United States.
Like many modern moms, most days I’m so exhausted that I don’t have the energy to debate the merits or political implications of either of these plans. I’m too busy taking care of my family, my home, my work, and my personal responsibilities to worry about whether or not I’ll be taken care of in my twilight years. However, it’s hard to push the future-bag-lady image out of my mind each April as I sit down with my accountant to look at our family finances and compile our yearly income-tax statement. I am reminded annually that my writing, filmmaking, and mothering have very little monetary value. In fact, once again, I am operating in the negative.
My accountant drives the point home brutally, “Just expenses, no income, right?”
“That’s right,” I say with shame.
My business partner is also a mother of two young children. In her prior professional life she was a life coach, so she keeps me motivated and reminds me of the value of the work we are doing. We are building a business AND we are nurturing our children. We are investing our time, energy, and resources into a better future. Our payoff will eventually come — we just need to be patient.
Some days, we fantasize about what it would be like if we didn’t have children and we could really commit to our careers. Imagine what we could accomplish if it were all about us? We could put in 80 hours a week, fly to L.A. twice a month, and never have to reschedule a meeting at the last minute because of a child’s sore throat.
Other times, we simply wish that our lives were simpler, that we could be content to stay home — good little women who filter all of our energy into mothering and domestic pursuits. We dream about sparkling clean homes, regular attendance at PTA meetings, coaching soccer teams, hosting frequent playdates, and not being plagued by maternal guilt.
Back to reality. We are complex, driven, and as passionate about our creative work as we are about our families. And so we are pulled in two different directions — with competing desires. There is no “either-or” — we must make the best of our lives with what we have. We give ourselves to both worlds, trying to find a delicate balance.
The truth is that I love my creative work, and I sometimes imagine that on my deathbed, I’ll be that one odd person who wishes she HAD worked more. But right now, I work less. I have purposely made my children my priority over my career. Their childhood is fleeting, and I don’t want to miss it. Yet, despite my professional sacrifices, my kids still complain that I work too much and that I seem to spend all my time attached to my computer.
“You’re no fun,” they tell me.
“I have a deadline,” I say, begging them for quiet and uninterrupted writing time.
“Can’t you tell someone else do it?” my daughter asks.
There is no one else. I can’t delegate my responsibilities. I can’t hand off my mothering duties completely while I focus on my writing. And I can’t ask someone else to transcribe what is inside of my head. I can’t just be a warm body that shows up to work to collect my paycheck. I can’t be emotionally detached from what I do. My work involves me being present and focused — sometimes to an overwhelming degree.
It’s difficult, this “operating in the negative.” Most of the time, I feel stretched beyond my limits, as if I’m running on empty. How many years can I give without seeing a return? How do I measure the worth of my work without a paycheck?
I went to the MOTHERS website and took its “What Are You Worth?” survey, which calculates the value of the multiple tasks mothers provide, from chauffeur to party planner. According to my results, I work approximately 116 hours a week as an unpaid family caregiver with a net value of $1,581 a week. That seemed like a lot until I compared my results to average respondents, who reportedly work 214 hours with a weekly net worth of $2,734.
Of course, my kids are older and in school most of the day, and I provide less daily caregiving than I used to when they were babies. With this “free time,” I am able to commit chunks of time to my work (at least when everybody is healthy or school isn’t on break). And I’d say that in an average week, I manage to give 30 to 50 hours to my writing and filmmaking. I know it seems like a lot for one mom to do, especially with everything else I am expected to do. So why does it feel as if I’m still not doing enough?
Perhaps it is because we live in a capitalist society where a person’s worth is measured primarily by what he or she earns and consumes. It is a philosophy that makes me, the struggling artist and unproductive mother, feel as if I am a non-contributor to society. I am a big, fat zero — as indicated by my tax returns and Social Security statements.
On my bad days and in moments of self-doubt, I agree with the world — I am operating in the negative. However, on my good days, when I look around at all I have and at the work I have produced, I have to believe that I am operating in the positive. Social Security reform or not, I imagine that someday, my children will grow up to be healthy, tax-paying members of society themselves — who won’t allow their dear mother to be a penniless bag lady.
Maybe I could work more to ensure a more financially sound future. Maybe I could work less to ensure my children’s utter devotion to take care of me in my later years. Or maybe I can accept that there are no guarantees in life, and that all any of us has is the here and now. For nothing is certain in life, except for death and taxes — and maternal guilt.