Dear I Have Notes,
A few years ago, I left a stable job to pursue a creative project I had been working at for many years in my free time. I was only able to quit because I was fortunate enough to receive funding for the project. I felt very lucky and that this was exactly what I should be doing. Now that my project is out in the world, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, and have been taking on other creative freelance projects. However, I’ve received quite a few comments from friends, neighbors—and acquaintances hoping to get into this artistic field—about my finances and my husband’s finances. (I am a cis woman, and my husband is a cis man.) Think: “Wow, I need to find a husband who can finance my [insert artistic dream here].” Or: “Are you looking for a job now that your project is done?”
While I am very open with others about my financial specifics when it’s career-related or similarly helpful, these questions and comments often are offhand and wedged in the middle of a different conversation. They are probably well meaning, but sometimes they can feel sexist and like they devalue my work. I have tried very hard to decouple money and what I earn from self-worth, but I never know how to respond to comments like these. I often gloss over them politely, only to feel flustered, guilty, and full of imposter syndrome later.
I have juggled multiple gigs since I was a teenager and been more or less financially independent since then, due to some family circumstances. I consider this creative career my job, and I feel fortunate that I’m making an income through freelancing that contributes to my household, pays off student loans, and allows me to help my extended family when they’re in need. I know that many things can be true here, including: My husband’s support and job has made my career more feasible; for example, it has provided me with health insurance and a rare—and new-to-me—peace of mind that should I not be able to find work, he could float us for a while. But I also am significantly contributing to our finances, and like to think that I would have found a way to pursue this creative project regardless of him.
Am I being defensive/entitled, or overthinking this? I don’t want to take on a boot-strapping mentality that doesn’t acknowledge the help I’ve had, or implies that people only need to work “harder” to “make it,” or seem like I’m bragging about my “success.” But I would like to figure out a succinct yet thoughtful way to respond (either verbally to the comment maker, or an internal mantra to myself) that doesn’t leave me feeling so rattled.
— A Penny For Your Thoughts?
Dear A Penny,
The most candid among us can find it challenging to talk about money, and money in marriage, even when the discussion isn’t laced with semi-veiled judgments. How to respond, indeed, to the implication that you’re not really working now that you’re a freelancer, or that your spouse is essentially sponsoring your art? I remain unconvinced that all the people lobbing these comments at you are “well meaning,” but regardless of their intentions, they are revealing how little they see or understand the work you do, and—in the case of that “financing your dream” remark—seemingly operating under the assumption that anyone without a traditional/salaried 9-to-5 couldn’t possibly be pulling their weight.
I understand why this can feel dismissive of your labor, especially as a woman. It may also indicate a lack of respect for creative work, which many people do not seem to consider work at all, viewing it as little more than a hobby—who could make a living at it, they wonder, and why should they even be able to? I’ve lost track of how many times someone has asked whether I make any money writing, as if it might be neither deserving of income nor remotely worthwhile without it. I often think of this poem by Marge Piercy:
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.
I realize it can be difficult to know how to respond to these remarks. At times, it may feel as though you’re validating them by saying anything at all. And there’s probably no one-size-fits-all approach here—how you respond will depend on exactly what was said, who you’re talking to, whether you feel you can be truly direct with them. Sometimes the easiest, most painless option may well be to pretend the other person didn’t say whatever wild thing they just said, then vent to whoever you need to afterward.
Another course of action is to offer up the facts. There’s a chance you might be able to counter a few baseless assumptions (and not give too much away) by simply stating the truth: “My husband didn’t bankroll my project; I secured funding for it myself”; “I’m not looking for a new job, actually, because I enjoy and think I’m good at the one I’ve got.” From there, the discussion could open up into something more thoughtful and nuanced, depending on the other person’s response and how expansive you feel like being. But of course, no one is entitled to any details you don’t want to share, and sometimes you might prefer to just let the conversation roll on.
When you mentioned feeling guilt and imposter syndrome, wondering whether your reaction to these comments might stem from defensiveness or entitlement, I couldn’t help but think of how we are often quick to question or doubt ourselves when other people say things that sting. Especially when the remarks come from our friends and neighbors, people we genuinely like and want to think well of, it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge that they’ve actually hurt us. But you have a right to feel upset or frustrated when your work is devalued, even if the slight is unintentional. And you are in no way responsible for anyone else’s off-base assumptions or hang-ups when it comes to artistic work generally, or your choices specifically.
As you said, many things can be true at once: Hard work and talent have contributed to your thriving career, and you also have a certain amount of privilege not enjoyed by everyone trying to break into your field. You take great satisfaction in your job, and you don’t want your sense of self-worth to be dependent on what you produce or how much you earn. You continue to work and contribute financially to your household, while your husband’s job provides you both with health insurance and additional peace of mind. These are all facts. Other people’s presumptuous questions or wild guesses about how money works in your marriage, on the other hand, have nothing to do with the facts.
And that’s what I’d encourage you to remember, if you do need a mantra when facing the worst of these comments: Whether thoughtless or premeditated, offered in jest or precisely aimed in order to wound, they do not represent an accurate summation of your situation, and they say more about the other person’s lack of imagination than they do about you.
You know why you chose a creative career, and why freelancing was the best decision for you. You understand the real value of your work, the fulfillment it brings you, how it helps your family. That’s what matters—that, and being proud of the work itself.
Nearly everyone I know with a creative job has had to find and follow their own strange path, one filled with twists and turns, opportunities and risks, sacrifices and lucky breaks. You mentioned being frank about your circumstances, your choices, and even your finances when this may prove helpful—the fact that you’re willing to be so open with others would seem to suggest that you’re neither entitled nor ignorant of your good fortune. I think it’s kind of you to share your experiences in such a genuine, thoughtful way when doing so might be of use to people interested in pursuing a job like yours. I hope you can be as generous to yourself as you are with those earnestly seeking your advice.
Do you have a question about friendship, family relationships, or creative work that you’d like me to answer in a future newsletter? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!