I was sadly reminded of this recently while talking to a fellow woman artist who was grappling with doubts over her career as a picture book illustrator. I love her art. She possesses skill, a unique voice, and a love of illustration, but is struggling to find enough work. I was in the midst of suggesting opportunities I felt might help her get more exposure, when she interrupted me to say, “you’re so lucky, if my husband managed my career like yours does, I’d have so much success.”
I wish I could say I was startled by her comment, but I’ve grown terribly accustomed to it. Yes, it’s true my husband works with me, but luck had nothing to do with it.
For a number of years, Dave worked as an engineer and I built up my career as a writer and illustrator. Then, several years ago, I became very ill with an autoimmune condition that required a lot of difficult medical treatments. My husband’s work required a good deal of travel but I needed him home while undergoing the treatments, which meant he needed to travel when I felt well and stay home when I was sick. Also, I had to give up doing school visits, something I had found deeply rewarding, because the medication impaired my ability to drive. We navigated both jobs, while I continued these treatments, but it felt like it was eroding our happiness.
I was getting to a point in my career where I needed to hire a personal assistant to help me manage the work load, and to help get me back on the road for school visits. It was time for us to take the plunge. Together, we decided Dave should become my assistant. It was a risky move. Not only were we losing his comfortable income, but also health insurance. In order for us to afford the more than $20,000 in insurance and co-pays my condition costs annually, as well as make up for the lost income of Dave’s salary, I needed to work even harder. There was no luck in this equation. But there was a deeply rewarding sense that I could do this. I could take on this professional risk and make this work.
What concerns me is that every time I hear someone say, “you’re so lucky, if my husband managed my career…” (which I am sad to say, I’ve heard thousands of times) I feel the legacy of our disempowerment raising its ugly head. We need to feel empowered. Our fates are in our own hands, not others, and not our husbands. Working with my husband is difficult at times. It’s a lot of long hours, and it can be hard to switch gears at the end of the day and become best friend and wife. And it can be hard for Dave sometimes to take the back seat role as an assistant when, for so long, he was an engineer. And “assistant” is the title of his job that we prefer. I’m startled how uncomfortable this makes many people feel. When we say that he works with me, almost universally, people assume and say, sometimes jokingly, usually seriously, that he’s my manager. And this makes me ponder again about the legacy of repression that women face.
Manager. I think if the roles were reversed, and I was doing the work he does, people would feel very comfortable calling me his “assistant”. Certainly, if I had hired a woman, they would call her my assistant. But somehow, most seem uncomfortable giving that title to a man. Is it demeaning to him? If so, then why is it not demeaning to all the woman who have played this role in a business partnership? It implies he’s the one in charge, driving my career decisions. But I am the one making most of the decisions. I am writing and illustrating, crafting talks, connecting with students, teachers, librarians and readers, doing interviews, writing articles and planning what’s to come. Working together this way has allowed me to not scale back in the face of obstacles life doled out. My husband shares a deep satisfaction over the work, but he does not see himself as my manger.
I just wanted to share this story because for years I struggled to put my own goals first when they were in conflict to my husband’s demanding job. I felt like I had to be wife first, and what was left over I could give to my art. I, like many, was raised by a mother who stayed home and always put my father’s needs first. That would have been fine if her role had been satisfying to her, but from my perspective it wasn’t. I graduated from a high school in a rural part of southern Oregon where 36 girls (that I knew of) became pregnant before graduation. I knew, by far, more girls getting married that first summer after high school than those planning to go to college. I was told countless times that I didn’t need to go to college, I could get married. It was a lot of training to undo. But I found I wanted and needed to take on career risks to feel fulfilled. And ultimately by taking on risk, my husband was able to find creative freedom for his own pursuits and leave a job he was no longer happy with.
I think the language we use with ourselves matters. Thinking we are lucky when we are accomplished steals our power. Thinking we need luck to advance, disempowers us. We, as women, should feel comfortable with saying we have ambition, or goals, or want to take on risk. We should feel an ownership of our talent, and the rich satisfaction that comes from putting ourselves on the line. We can’t allow ourselves to think, “if only…” we could achieve those goals. We have generations of mental repression to undo. It starts with our language and mind set. It begins by supporting each other’s goals and recognizing other’s achievement so that we can identify places where we can grow. I am fortunate that so many women in the children’s lit world have been strong, brilliant, hardworking role models to my own ambitions. It has helped me navigate through the tangled net of doubt that inhabits my own thinking. I hope we, together, can continue to discover language that empowers ourselves.