Owning My Worth
At 62, in the midst of a career shift, Jessica Handler reconsiders the value of her work.
When I was 8 years old, my father, who turned out to be terrible with money, worked on a colleague’s campaign for U.S. Senate. One day I walked into my parents’ bedroom to find my father sitting on the bed, surrounded by an ocean of cash.
“Go ahead,” I remember him laughing, “roll in it.”
In my memory, I bounced on the bed as tens, twenties, and denominations I didn’t know existed fluttered around me. My father and I were delighted. We were actually, physically, playing with money.
Last fall, while completing an expense report for a speaking engagement, I realized that I no longer knew what to charge for mileage. I’d driven from Atlanta to Birmingham and back, a roundtrip of about three hundred miles, and the thirty-four cents per mile I’d habitually charged felt wrong. Checking the IRS website showed me that the rate was now fifty-six cents per mile.
One day I walked into my parents’ bedroom to find my father sitting on the bed, surrounded by an ocean of cash…“Go ahead,” I remember him laughing, “roll in it.”
I was horrified. Not by the fact that I’d blithely undercut myself for years, but that I hadn’t checked until that moment. No one I knew talked openly about what they charged as a freelance writer, a guest speaker, an editorial hired gun. And I had never asked.
My father ran through his earnings over the years for a variety of reasons. When he and my mother divorced, she attempted to garnish his wages for the child support he either refused or was unable to pay. She stopped only when he harangued my little sister on the telephone until she wept. My mother, my sister, and I plowed ahead with help from extended family, student loans, her more than fulltime work as a magazine editor and yes, a freelance writer. Until the end of her life, my mother meticulously tracked grocery receipts, movie tickets, and gasoline receipts daily with a spreadsheet.
We never discussed her salary, or the rent on her apartment, or the cost of a gift. Money scared me. It seemed both hard to come by and easy to lose, a vital thing that could cover a bedspread, that could make a small child sob.
We live in a culture where we’re taught not to talk about what we earn, or to question what we’re paid. We are unwilling, essentially, to establish basic knowledge about what our work is worth.
I am 62, and I have resigned the full-time university lecturer position I’ve held for nearly a decade. As of this summer, there will no longer be a steady auto-deposit in my checking account every two weeks. Mine may be the last generation to draw fully from what we’ve put into Social Security, and I intend to use it when I need it. I tell myself that this is not a wrong move. I know I’m lucky. I’ve put money away after a career behind the scenes in television, years of teaching, publishing three books, and inheriting a small amount of money from my careful and caring mother.
An earlier generation would have said “I’m retired,” but I resist this phrase. I intend to keep working, but on my own terms.
A friend and I recently discussed the notion that we have been manipulated in a particular way throughout our working lives. We live in a culture where we’re taught not to talk about what we earn, or to question what we’re paid. We are unwilling, essentially, to establish basic knowledge about what our work is worth. My friend claims that corporate greed is designed to keep us mum. My father, who grew up affluent but briefly lived in his car, would have agreed, deriding my silence as a consequence of “working for the man.” My mother would have told me to stop being afraid, to look money in the eye, to claim my worth.
Back when I was a production manager at a television network, I taped a cute little postcard over my desk. The slogan was obscured by swirls and color, but it read, “Tired of Being the Good Girl.” I would eye that thing every time I had to confront a producer on the verge of missing a deadline, or coax a celebrity out of a tantrum. The message on the postcard reminded me of something I was afraid to acknowledge: I am worth more than this.
Back when I was a production manager at a television network, I taped a cute little postcard over my desk…It read, “Tired of Being the Good Girl.”…The message on the postcard reminded me of something I was afraid to acknowledge: I am worth more than this.
I will be freelancing again soon, and there are moments when I am afraid I have made a reckless and selfish move. I have visions of becoming the insolvent person I was in high school, hanging around the local pizza place in order to help myself to an abandoned but perfectly good half a pie. I might turn into the person I was in college, digging through couch cushions to scare up enough loose change to chip in for gasoline for a friend’s car.
But these are old stories, memories I’ll collide with in my next steps, much like the image of my father amid a pile of donated cash. I’ve turned into a person with skills, savings, a husband, friends. It’s time to speak up, and to own my worth.