Friday, September 26, 2014

breadwinner

Two Mays ago Old Cat's death was hard on all of us. It was especially hard for me to watch our younger cat Jack wonder where she had gone.  When Jack came into our lives as a strapping young boy, Old Cat was already old, and, although smaller than he was, she boxed his ears and told him in no uncertain terms that she was #1 Cat. She had first claim to my lap, to my bed, to any open doors, and to the food. For weeks after she died, when I set the food down Jack looked around to see if she was coming before he started to eat. He looked at me with disbelief that it could be just for him. This past January when Buttercup came into our lives, Jack went into a tailspin again. He knew he didn't want to be #2 Cat to this young brat, but he didn't know how to be #1 Cat.

As I've been working on job applications these past couple of weeks, it occurs to me that I'm a little bit like Jack. While I wouldn't say that I was subordinate to my late husband, I had settled into my role as the trailing spouse, the one whose career would always happen in the space around the breadwinner's career. There were a lot of practical reasons that Adam would always be the breadwinner: Because his age and his co-op experience put him ten years ahead of me in career development, because he was an engineer, and I am a language teacher, because he was a man, and I am a woman, his salary would always have outstripped mine. For most of our marriage, in fact, my contribution to the family's income was ten percent of his.

When I started my PhD, the desired plan was that I would find work within daily or weekly commuting distance from Rambling Farmhouse, working as an adjunct until something full-time or tenure track came up. As things got worse for Adam at his workplace here, we started talking about my doing a national search for full-time work and moving the whole family to whatever I found, but it still had to be a geographic area within a daily or weekly commute to something for Adam.

My trailing spouse status was not only a result of our relative earning potentials, though. It was also about the difference in how driven we were. Adam always wanted to reach higher; he wanted to manage a group of engineers, to run a multi-million dollar project, to move the company from good to great, to start his own business, to work at the cutting edge. Me? I don't crave leadership. I don't burn to see my name on a publication. I don't aspire to eminent scholar status. I don't settle for shoddy, but I'll never be a rock star researcher. My elbows aren't sharp enough, and I don't own brass knuckles. I want to do what I love and do it well, and really, that's the perfect attitude for a trailing spouse.

I don't get to have that attitude anymore.

Insurance settlements and Social Security payments buy me some time retool the plan, but they will not last forever. As they cease to fill the coffers each month, I have to take this career that was intended to be secondary and find a way to support myself, my children, and our critters in the present while also preparing for college and retirement in the future. All of a sudden, I'm the #1 Cat, but no one is offering me first choice of the food each night.

I have to be the breadwinner, and it frightens me.

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