It was after midnight when Michael slipped through the front door. I could tell he was trying hard not to wake me—the way he gently closed the door behind him; the way he tiptoed over the hardwood floors; the way he undressed in the bathroom, his jeans whispering down his legs to the tiled floor.
But I had been awake since the moment his car door slammed in the back parking lot.
"It would have been nice to know when to expect you," I muttered to him as he pulled back the sheets in the dark. He looked startled.
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"I told you I'd be working late," he finally said, sliding his glasses into their case and checking to make sure the alarm was set. "It's going to be like this for the next month or so."
"This is bullshit," I said, not ready to let him off the hook. "You're working all of this overtime, and you're not even being paid for it. They're taking advantage of you."
"Yeah, well, this is the startup environment," he said wearily, tired of having the same argument over and over. "This is how it is. I have to play the game if I want to be able to pay the bills."
I glowered, thinking back to the trip we'd taken for our four-year wedding anniversary, several months before. Upon arriving at our motel, he'd pulled out his laptop, saying there was "just one thing" he had to take care of, despite the fact he'd been granted a vacation day.
"You need to reevaluate your priorities," I said now, as I had said then. "You have a wife to come home to."
"I'm being a good husband," he said. "I'm taking care of you."
"I need more than money," I said, my body thrumming with anger.
"Well, maybe if your income was higher, I wouldn't have to work so hard."
This was the point in the conversation where my head usually exploded.
Even When We Weren't Fighting About Money, It Was Always There
As a couple with wildly divergent incomes, this issue was always there, lurking in the background. No matter how far removed an argument was from our finances, at the climax of each disagreement he would throw his breadwinner status in my face, as if to say I had no right to complain about anything. He was, after all, carrying me. He was carrying us.
It enraged me.
When we first met back in 2004—at a strip mall Dunkin Donuts in North Jersey — I had just been laid off from my first post-college job. Only 23 at the time, I was already collecting unemployment checks and, on top of that sparse income, did nightlife reviews for Shecky’s and handed out food samples at Pathmark. The food sample gig was demoralizing, and the reviews barely covered bus fare into the city, but I prided myself on being an independent woman. I insisted on splitting every date-night dinner check.
Around the same time, I also dug myself into $10,000-deep holes five times in about five years (not to mention my student loans and car payments). I racked up credit card debt from buying pretty dresses and piles of paperbacks and home décor. When the interest rates on my cards shot up, I fell behind, and things spiraled out of control. My family bailed me out the first three times. Michael bailed me out the fourth. When it happened a fifth time, I cried when I told him, because it was no longer just my problem. It affected both of us. I gave him all my cards and stopped using them entirely. It took me a few years to finish paying off the last of that debt.
As Time Went On ...
By the time we ended up buying a condo together, I had a job working full-time for an academic book publisher. But even though Michael was an underpaid direct mail copywriter back then, my salary still couldn’t hold a candle to his. I was saddled with guilt by the fact that he had to singlehandedly cover all the household bills while I only bought groceries and paid down my debt.
I knew he was feeling a lot of pressure to keep us afloat, and I wished I could contribute more. Still, as time went on, I found myself relying on Michael more and more.
(Was the issue about feeling taken for granted? One study shows a simple thank-you could save your relationship.)
Where We Are Today
I had always dreamed of devoting myself to my writing. To prepare, I took continuing ed classes, attended networking events and read a ton of books on freelancing, writing and business. After our wedding, I had a chat with Michael about going full-time freelance. He said he'd support me, but that I had to show results within a year. Within six months, I had matched my previous salary.
So now I'm a full-time freelance writer. I've done okay for myself, and have even managed to pay off my credit card debt. But Michael's salary has tripled since we first met, thanks to a career switch from copywriting to web development. No matter how much I accomplish, I feel as if I'm not contributing enough. I feel worthless.
I feel as if the things I'm most proud of (like writing a book proposal and signing with an agent, or appearing on a panel for the American Society of Journalists and Authors, or launching a "starter kit" for writers that tripled my mailing list but didn't bring in any money) don't count.
Why I Would Never Want a Corporate Job
Still, I could never go back to the corporate world; freelance life has ruined me for that. I also can't bring myself to hustle harder, going to great lengths to land even more writing assignments. I worked hard to build up a valuable network, and I made my current successful freelancing happen, but I'm not the type (especially not anymore) to spend nights and weekends developing query letters and executing complex marketing plans.
I value work-life balance more than I value career growth, and to be honest, I'm not sure what I'm working toward. I don't know if I want anything more than to work on writing a book and teach yoga (I signed up for teacher training in January) and be a mom. The motivation and zeal is no longer there.
I make about 26% of what Michael makes, but I love my job
I get to roll out of bed at 7:30 or 8:30 a.m., lose myself in a cup of coffee as I catch up on emails, and work on everything from ghost-tweeting and ghostwriting books to helping clients manage their social media, writing freelance articles, doing some career coaching, managing my own blog and monthly newsletter and developing an online community. I can generally fit a yoga class into the day and knock off work around 6.
I make, on average, maybe $30,000 a year (working part-time hours, truthfully). It goes up and down every year. To put things in perspective, I make about 26% of what Michael makes.
All the same, I'm happy.
How My View for the Future Aligns With My Husband's
All that seems to be missing is children, and we're working on that. I'm turning 32 and Michael is 33, and we've been trying to have a baby for two years now. We're on our second round of intrauterine insemination (IUI) now and the plan has always been for me to work from home to be with the kids. It's one of the main reasons the freelance life appeals to me.
As for our money issues, I'm sure having kids won't make things any easier, but I know we're strong enough to work through it.
(Wondering how money might affect your relationship? More on that here.)
We've also been trying to sell our condo for as long as we've been trying to have a baby, but the value has dropped so low we'd lose too much money by selling right now, so we're planning to rent out our condo once we buy a house. Thanks to Michael's salary, we're now at a place that we feel secure making that move, and we're in the process of buying a house through a short sale.
Here's Why I Don't 'Want It All'
Anne-Marie Slaughter recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic on "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." The media sphere exploded with commentary on why she was right, why she was way off base and why the phrase "having it all" was in itself problematic. (LearnVest interviewed guys for their views on the subject, and that exploded, too.) This was around the same time as the debate around Marissa Mayer's work-life balance. I tried to ignore the uproar. All these articles only made me uncomfortable.
When I explore this discomfort now, I realize that I don't really want to "have it all." Or, rather, the phrase "having it all" is different for everyone. For me, it means having a balanced life, as a writer and wife and mother and woman. A high-powered career doesn't interest me, though I wouldn't want to stop working completely.
Michael and I have always wanted the same, basic things: marriage, children, a house, fulfilling careers. When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a writer. When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer. Now? I'm a writer. Though the details of what I'm writing change, I never get tired of working with words.
But then I think about how Michael's carrying me. How he's carrying us. And not wanting "it all" (in the conventional six-figure sense) makes me feel guilty.
All the same, we've been having the money argument a lot less than we used to. We're being better to each other in general. Once we both cool down from an argument, we're able to see the other person's side. All we can do is continue to support each other.
Steph Auteri is a freelance writer and editor who typically writes about sex. She has overshared in Playgirl, Nerve, Babble, the Frisky and other publications. Thank God her husband loves seeing his name in print.