Downwardly Immobile: Looking for Work in All the Wrong Places
Issue #53, January 2001
Survival and the Downwardly Mobile
I am unemployed. After twenty-three years of working to survive, one way or another, I am suddenly without income and trying to figure out what to do with my life. As I reflect on my situation, one hero keeps coming to mind — Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Oh the life of the downwardly mobile, how rich it is! I would love nothing more than to spend my days whipping up mochas and lattes with no responsibility other than making change. Goodbye organizational vision, fiscal management, and professional growth. Hello mindless labor with weekly paycheck attached.
I am a case that many would call a true success story: I worked my way up from being a high school drop-out, drug addict and prostitute, to becoming an honors student with full scholarship at UC Berkeley and finally the Executive Director of a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit organization. Now that's success! I got a good education and built a strong career. I worked hard and earned an acceptable place in society. I transcended the limitations imposed by my class and gender boundaries and occupied a high-level position that demanded respect and consideration from men who never would have opened a door for me in the past.
But now I find myself in an odd position. I have decided I want to take a step back from the pressures of professional life. I want downward mobility. I want to work in a position in which the entire weight of the organization does not rest on my shoulders, where I can do my job, go home and be done with it. It's not something I have been accustomed to. Now, that doesn't seem to be asking for too much. People should be scrambling to hire me, right? Fat chance. What I've learned in my search for downward mobility is that my experience has labeled and packaged me as a certain type of product and that I cannot transform myself into a new, "lesser" product. People read my list of qualifications and put me in the appropriate compartment — over qualified. They don't even interview me.
Ironically it is my fear of failure that has driven me to success and ultimately undermined my current situation. As I worked my way off the streets, one fear always lurked in my mind: my whole world could crumble at any minute, and I could lose everything. This fear caused me to work constantly. Never would I allow myself to be leave mistakes uncorrected, miss a deadline, or leave an assignment incomplete. I was sure the slightest slip would cause my world to collapse, and I would be right back on the streets again. So as I worked and worked and worked and produced excellent work at a rapid pace, I was able to climb up the professional ladder very quickly, all as a result of my sordid past — oh the irony!
Now I have finally reached a place in my life where I can settle for less and still feel comfortable. I don't have to be in charge, and, in fact, I shudder at the thought of professional responsibility. But that's easier said than done.
June Cleaver Vs. Wonder Woman of the New Millenium
Why is this downward mobility so important to me? That's easy to explain in one word — MOM. I'm a mother now, and my two-year old daughter Skylar is infinitely more important to me than holding a high-ranking position and bringing home big bucks. I'd rather spend my mental and physical resources being a great mother instead of a great career woman. How archaic of me. That type of thinking is unacceptable and out-dated in the 21st century. Today's women are expected to do it all and be thrilled about it. Gone are the days when being a mother was considered hard work. Today, women are expected to play the role of superwoman: maintain the demanding career, work out daily to maintain the hard body that goes with the career and power suit, be a supportive wife and devoted mother, and not forget to keep a beautiful home and cook healthy balanced meals, low in cholesterol and saturated fat! Well isn't that a step forward for womankind? And if you can't seem to fit in the children and the house, no need to worry — that's what nannies are for. Just hire someone to be a mother for your children. Of course, the woman that you hire most likely has children of her own whom she will neglect in order to care for your children. But that's the life of the woman of the new millennium. No need to worry.
So now every day I feel that I owe the world an apology for being unemployed. When I drop Skylar off at preschool and see the other mothers in their Volvos, with their cell phones and power suits, I feel guilty and worthless. I must be a lesser human and certainly a lesser mother than they are. Sure, I will spend my day looking for a job and making our home a happy and enriching environment for our family. I might even sneak an hour or two to make art or write an article for Bad Subjects — how absolutely frivolous of me. But as I create a mobile for my daughter's classroom, put another load of dirty clothes in the washer, or show Skylar how to play "Jingle Bells" on the Piano, I am filled with guilt. Who do I think I am, June Cleaver or something? How excessive of me to want to take an active role in my child's development.
Denying the Mammal
Shortly before Skylar was born, I experienced moments of great panic — "Oh my God, what am I going to do with this baby?" I had never really spent much time around babies, and even though I took all the classes and read all the books, I had no idea about the physical reality of raising children. The thought of every minute detail — changing diapers, picking up the baby, bathing the baby, feeding the baby, everything involving the baby, sent me into a great panic. But what I learned after only a few minutes of actual motherhood is that, all else aside, I am just a mammal. Suddenly, I just knew how to be a mom, and it had nothing to do with parenting classes or anything else I had learned. I knew exactly what my baby needed when she needed it. Everything just came to me from some hidden resource inside me. It was like I was some completely different species than I thought I was.
All that hard shell that I had developed, my obsession with staying in control, educating and advancing myself so I could stand my ground in society — none of it mattered anymore. All that mattered was this little baby girl who depended entirely on me for her survival and happiness. After all, gorillas don't read books about raising children, nor do other mammals, but they seem to know what to do. Of course, we the sophisticated humans aren't really mammals, are we? Our great capacity for intellectualizing our lives, for building and creating, for commerce and trade certainly has enabled us to transcend our base biological nature. Or has it simply suppressed it? Certainly it has for mothers.
The one thing that I discovered to be most important for my daughter, from the moment she was born until now, is for her mother to be there for her. Babies and small children need the safe haven of their mother's physical presence. Sure, loads of psychological texts of the past few decades attempt to deny that fact. You can read about many of them in Working Mother magazine and other propaganda created to make mothers feel good about their situation. Denying the mammal inside them helps working mothers feel better about the fact that they are spending less than a quarter of their waking hours with their children, that they are not the most important influence in their children's lives, that they are entrusting the majority of their children's social and creative development to strangers.
So now, as I try to reach a compromise between our financial needs and the needs of my daughter, I've decided the best option is downward mobility. If and when I do finally find the job I want, I will face a new challenge. After months of being unemployed, I will have to break the news to Skylar that I'm going back to work, that I frequently won't be home when she wakes up in the morning or when she wakes up from her nap in the afternoon. I will get to be mom from 6 p.m. — 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those will be my working hours as mother. She'll have to adjust to that schedule, and so will I. But, at least my time with her will be our time, and I won't be connected to a job by pager, cell phone, and e-mail. Hopefully, the quality of our time together will make up for lack of quantity. You can rest assured that I'll work as hard as I can to be the best mom I can be for Skylar.
Kim Nicolini lives in Tucson, Arizona. She is a writer and artist. Her most amazing creation is her daughter Skylar. She also thinks pretty highly of her partner Charlie and her twenty-year old cat Tibbs. She'd love to hear from you.