The Layoff Diaries: Nice girls finish last?

piggy-bankWhen I pick up my daughters at the end of the day, it’s not the typical “grab backpacks and firmly herd them out the door” kind of scene.

Because Joe is the family cook – and he won’t be home until after Neve’s pre-school closes at 6, anyway – it frankly makes no difference to me whether the girls want to linger and play with their friends or leave right away. So on most days, I take a seat and play with them, or chat with the young women who are their caregivers, or just spectate.

While doing the latter on a recent evening, Neve and a friend were playing with a plastic toy garage, with curving car ramps, when a younger blond girl approached the table and pulled it toward herself.

Neve yelled, “Hey!” and yanked it back, like a reflex.

I, meanwhile, did the thing you expect mommies to do. I said, “Neve, she shouldn’t have grabbed it from you, but you don’t have to freak out, either. You could just pull it back and say, ‘Excuse me, we were playing with that.’”

But even as I went through the motions of saying these words, I wondered if this is how it starts. If these are the subtle ways that girls are taught that “being nice” is prized over backbone and action. (You might think, “You’d say that to a son, too” – and you’re right, I probably would; but boys aren’t usually groomed in the same way girls are to “not make waves” and to always put others’ needs before their own.)

The timing of this particular parenting question is no accident. Since my layoff happened on January 6 – 33 days ago now – I’ve been accepting free-lance assignments from a number of sources: theater companies, local arts-oriented websites, news organizations, etc. But because I’ve been out of the free-lancing game for nearly 12 years, I found myself immediately staring down my least favorite part of this racket: negotiating a price for my labor.

An identity crisis is inherently part of this process. After being downsized – a process that literally defines both you and your abilities as “unnecessary” – you inevitably question the value of your skills (presuming you’re secure enough to feel you still have legitimate skills); and you start asking yourself, “What’s the point of being really good at something professionally if so few people care?”

Good question.

Yes, I’ll always experience joy after producing a piece of writing that conveys something in a clear and thoughtful way; and I’m lucky to have a partner whose job (as a commercial litigator) is not only secure, but lucrative enough to keep us out of the danger zone of possibly losing our house, our cars, etc. My part-time staff journalist’s salary provided solid additional income, but it was never the lifeblood of our family’s financial life.

Even so, I find myself having mini-anxiety attacks about money lately, whether it’s at a Play It Again Sports store, where we were looking for used ice skates for our family; or in the car, when the mere suggestion that Lily (age 7) might need to cut back on how often she goes to after-school care causes her to nearly explode with grief; or on the phone with a heavily-accented, certified Apple technician guy, who tells me I’ve been duped by a tech support message that popped up shortly after getting my refurbished-but-new-to-me laptop.

“You paid $200?!” he blurted, starting to file a Better Business Bureau report on my behalf on my own laptop screen. “You should not have to pay anyone anything. What did you pay $200 for?”

“For an anti-malware security system, because he showed me that I had a lot of malware already wreaking havoc on my machine,” I said, through humiliated tears.

Even as that $200 transaction was taking place (about one week after my layoff), and I thought the misspellings (among other indicators) on the contract looked fishy, I didn’t press the issue, because I’d been on the phone for nearly 2 hours, and I really needed to leave to pick up the girls, and I depended on my new laptop to do the writing that was necessary to keep me sane and help me find work.

So instead of “making waves” or pushing back in the moment, I had paid the money. It was the most expedient option.

And now, dispirited and embarrassed, I had to call my credit card company and freeze the payment, and file a report, and ignore calls from the guys who duped me, and try not to feel utterly hopeless.

Because starting from ground zero is hard enough without obsessing over how much every part of “a new start” actually costs.

For in the first days of this furlough – after having to turn in my work-issued laptop and work-issued smartphone – I researched and purchased this refurbished laptop ($1,100); shopped around for a dependable smartphone ($800) and service ($100/month), as well as damage protection for the phone itself ($200); and I filled my calendar with networking lunch and coffee dates, on the advice of just about everyone – because as more time passes, more people will forget about my job-less circumstances.

Plus, though I’ve benefited from having long-established relationships in the local arts community, and from a general awareness of what I’m capable of, the income from these one-off free-lance projects will probably never add up to my former salary – which was admittedly very modest but steady.

And at year’s end, I’ve got to fork over one third of every cent I make now to taxes (which will, logistically speaking, be a nightmare to file again).

Which brings us back to quoting prices for specific free-lance jobs, since I’m always thinking, in the back of my mind, I’ll only get to keep 2/3 of this, but what’s a fair price?

There’s the rub. I’m no longer a young writer trying to gather clips and prove herself. I’m an experienced professional, and I deserve to be compensated like one.

But then the arts advocate in me says, like a nagging bird on my shoulder, “You know how strapped these organizations are. You can’t ask too much or gouge them if you want them to survive. That’s not right.”

Yet self-gouging (and martyrdom) doesn’t seem like the right answer, either, of course.

So I’m still finding my way through this fraught, complicated issue that is often linked, for better or worse, to feelings of self-worth on a given day.

I launched a local arts blog (A2 Arts Addict) pretty immediately after my layoff, as both a place where all my free-lance pieces can live together, and where I can occasionally offer original, blog-only content. But the view numbers aren’t that high yet, and it will take a while to build an audience that checks in regularly.

I’m exploring Patreon and other crowdfunding options to see whether I might get enough community support to not only be paid for my efforts, but also pay others for theirs. (My dear friend and longtime colleague Roger Lelievre recently wrote wonderful recaps of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival to help launch the blog, and when/if I figure out what direction I wish to take to monetize the site, I’ll be paying him first.)

All of this is to say, it’s terrifying and uncomfortable out here in Unemployment Land. I’m still figuring out who I am without my job.

And as much as I hate to say it, I think it’s all the harder because I’ve been programmed to be an un-selfish “nice girl.” In many ways, I like the person I am, and the values I uphold; but in a cutthroat business world, I’m consistently the one most likely to be left bleeding at the neck.

7 thoughts on “The Layoff Diaries: Nice girls finish last?

  1. Erik says:

    “I’ve been programmed to be an un-selfish “nice girl.” In many ways, I like the person I am, and the values I uphold”
    For the record, I’ve always said you were a nice girl and all.

  2. Liz Brinkman says:

    Great article. Totally understand the feeling of undervaluing yourself but yet or wanting to over burden the person/company who is engaging your services.

    Side note: if you ever need help with your computer – call me Linda has my number .

  3. teacherpatti says:

    I completely understand this. When I was in the legal field, I know I was underpaid because I was so happy to have a job that I just took whatever they offered.

  4. Richard Retyi says:

    Freelancing checks can be rough, which is why it was always my side gig and not a significant portion of my income. The old community contributor model started out free (yayyyy!) and then, when the herd was culled a little, went to $25, then $50, then topped out at $75. All this before the dreaded freelance tax.

    Concentrate Media was generous. They started me out around $75-100 (as I recall) and after five articles that climbed to $125 or $150 (again, memory is a little foggy).

    There were the weird side gigs, like Lake Living Magazine ($20 per piece and payment came as a personal check from the publisher), iSpy Magazine (some weird payment scale that was like $8 for movie reviews, $12 for restaurant reviews and $10 for general jackassery – payment also made on personal checks). Or writing for the Sidetrack newsletter, which was actually a sweet gig where I was paid in two $50 gift cards.

    I only scratched the surface of the big time with Road & Track. They paid $300 per article (as I recall) and it’s a shame I got on board with them so late in my freelancing career and at a time when my 9-5 job was just too damn taxing. I wrote three or four times for them and then just couldn’t keep it up. I had plans to elevate – Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vulture, whoever the hell wanted words – but I kinda burned out.

    All this to say – I wrote so so so much for absolutely no compensation, and I think that says a lot more about writers in general than men/women/politeness. I understand the value of a great piece of written content (as do you, obviously) but, because I love writing so much (and I probably have self esteem issues) it’s hard to want to charge for things. There’s guilt to it. For me at least. I’m rambling. Hope all is well.

  5. Guy Sanville says:

    I’m going to make shure my daughter reads this.

  6. Chelsea Sadler says:

    An arts organization isn’t going to agree to pay you more than it can truly afford. So don’t be concerned about asking for too much.
    You should also continue to make yourself available for cheap to cover passion projects. You’re doing it because you’re a good human being, not because you’re a “nice girl.”

  7. Michele Estebon says:

    Why are women consistently paid less than men for doing the same thing? In many ways, I’m not the typical gal, but still find myself accepting what I’m given rather than asking for what I want or need. And I more often accept what I’m offered as a testament to my value. I worked for 5 years at less than half my market value because I was comfortable and I didn’t hate what I did. That’s the rationale I used to keep me there. Every guy I ever discussed that with thought I was crazy for not demanding more. We may be “nice” and “un-selfish”, but maybe the real culprit is being agreeable, which none is a bad thing but we could stand to play the system more since it obviously plays us.

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