Making Less Money than My Partner is Damaging My Self Esteem and Mental Health
Capitalism has a hold over each and every one of us. For most, it offers a grueling choice: be financially stable, or be happy. Unfortunately, not many people get to have both. I know I don’t.
I quit the world of ‘stable’ work back in 2014 when I decided to become a full-time freelance writer. By stable I mean it gave me a monthly pay cheque. I’d previously worked in retail and office environments, and both triggered severe depressive and anxious episodes for me. Verbal abuse from customers, long shifts that took time away from my university education.
I had panic attacks after sexist customers shouted at me for problems I had nothing to do with. One man called me a bitch for politely telling him the store was closing. Apparently the store “should have closed when he was done shopping.” I threw my back out several times being told to carry boxes much too heavy for my 5 foot 99 pound frame (yes, I lifted with my legs), which caused me to miss class more often than I should have. So not only was I getting physically and emotional damage from the work, I was also failing classes.
I didn’t feel like I was doing anything rewarding with my life either. I’d stopped writing since I didn’t have the time, and I was barely out in the sun for more than an hour or two per week. Needless to say the depression I thought was getting better, was pulling me back in. I dreaded going to work, and the mood swings began affecting everything and everyone around me.
All in all, it was just an awful time for me and for my existing mental illnesses.
I’d always been neurodivergent
I’ve had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, and Depression for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember a time when my living situation didn’t exacerbate each of them. In fact, these conditions have always heavily affected my ability to work in public spaces. Though all of my service jobs gave me a good pay cheque, I knew if I didn’t quit immediately, I’d destroy my mental health.
That being said, the creative industry does not pay well, at the very least for emerging creatives. So in exchange for my mental safety, well-being, and happiness, I sacrificed my finances. I’ve never felt more relaxed, yet at the same time I’ve never felt so guilty. I also sacrificed the idea of financial equality between myself and my partner.
Hard work just never seems to be enough
As a neurodivergent queer writer who works solely from home, I made less than two grand last year. And this was working every single weekday on more or less a 9-5 schedule. As someone with a white collar office job, my boyfriend can make that amount in a couple of weeks. So needless to say, I’ve been dipping into my savings since my creative career began. It has also affected how I view myself as his girlfriend; I feel incredibly guilty that I can’t contribute to the household expenses as much as he can. It’s a vicious cycle where I feel guilty and financially unsafe, therefore my mental health suffers.
I’m not the only one living pay cheque to cheque. According to PayScale.com, a part-time freelance writer salary is put somewhere in the range of $24,000 – $115,000 per year. This doesn’t sound terrible at first for take home pay, but this doesn’t take into account the lack of medical insurance, pensions, and other benefits that affect quality of life built into a 9-5 income. Those statistics also don’t take into account how much less writers of color, LGBTQIAP+ writers, and disabled writers make. These numbers? Well they’re a lot smaller.
The 50% rule
That feeling of not being able to contribute more to the household expenses is a huge strain on my mental health. My OCD symptoms in particular have increased significantly ever since I started dipping into my savings.
During my time in retail my anxiety symptoms greatly outnumbered my OCD symptoms. I was prone to crying spells, my breathing became more laboured, and heart palpitations were plenty. OCD wise I was mostly having an issue with germaphobia, as the store warehouse was very dusty. But it wasn't until I began working from home when my symptoms became a lot more tourettic. I physically twitch a lot more, I act out more specific rituals more often - such as tapping things and experiencing constant intrusive paranoia thoughts about homelessness - and all in all I feel less control of my own body.
The anxiety created over being at home alone all day, and constantly fretting about money, manifests physically. In retail it almost didn't have a chance to manifest as often as I was too busy being yelled at or lifting impossibly heavy boxes.
At least being freelance, I feel less attacked and less stressed by the work itself. Actually, the work itself isn’t stressful at all. I adore writing, and I love social media strategy. So it always made more sense to me to do something I loved, even if it came at the cost of my finances. But in a way even this makes me feel guilty. The work isn’t stressful, but I make less money; is this even allowed? When there are people out there who would be in an even worse position than I if they quit their day jobs, why did I deserve to make that choice?
The guilt is real
For women and feminine people, this guilt is particularly tough considering society expects us to do twice as much as cishet men, for half the thanks.
My boyfriend doesn’t particularly like his job as he once described it as “it’s not terrible, but it’s sort of soul destroying.” This to me seemed like a massive contradiction in terms. But maybe he was being brave because he didn’t want to make me feel bad. We’ve discussed it a lot, but in a way I feel like he is also dealing with guilt of his own. That he feels he doesn’t have the right to complain because of his privileges. The fear that his own mental health is suffering from his work, in turn affects my own. It’s a Catch-22; I sense his anxiety, my anxiety spikes. My anxiety spikes; my OCD symptoms increase; my mood suffers. Then in turn, I can’t sleep, I get dizzy spells, and so on.
The desire to pay 50% of everything is strong, especially with a feminist partner such as myself. Personally I find myself trying to make up for it in other ways, by beating him to the dishes when we’ve finished dinner. Taking out the trash before he gets home, overly apologising for how the apartment isn’t 100% spotless. I know he’s had a long hard day in the office, so if I can’t give him 50% of the rent then I can sure as hell give him 100% of the housework. But that in and of itself seems so unfeminist to me. I’m taking time away from my own poorly paid work to spend extra time on the housework. I’m taking on the role of a housewife, rather than a partner. In a perfect world, I’d hope we could split all of that 50/50 too.
People don’t really understand
People kept telling me “You have a degree in psychology, why not do something in that field? And do writing on the side?” But why is my chosen career deemed as a hobby? I don’t want to ‘do it on the side.’
Creative jobs are always deemed no better than a hobby, but as soon as you become successful that’s suddenly not the case anymore. No one would tell the Russo brothers “Yeah the Avengers films are cool, but is it a realistic career? Why don’t you make the next one on the side of a bank job?” No one tells JK Rowling, “You’d be better getting a PHD, save the latest Harry Potter prequel for your free time!”
This is because they’ve already made it, and because the art these people create is already in the zeitgeist. Countless artists quit their day jobs to pursue a life of creation, it’s very common. And a lot of people make it big. JK Rowling, originally a single mother who lived on welfare benefits, is now said to earn a whopping £142 per minute from Harry Potter royalties.
These are special circumstances, and they often happen to people with (white cishet) privilege. The average artist, and particularly marginalised artists, wade through mountains of debt and awful pay cheques before they get anywhere. How much money these franchises eventually generate is a huge factor in how ‘valuable’ they are deemed.
But when it comes to up and coming artists, they’re suddenly all starving artists that are taking advantage of those around them. JK Rowling would have been deemed a so called welfare thief, if the world hadn’t fallen in love with the Boy Who Lived. And if Hollywood hadn’t seen what a great money making machine it turned out to be.
I just want to make a stable wage. I don’t need Harry Potter levels of fame and fortune. Yet it seems that is too much to ask.
So, what can I do now?
Luckily my partner understands that my career has to move slowly right now. So in order to help my anxiety, I know I have to get in that same mindset. Otherwise my symptoms will just get worse.
I don’t want to take advantage of my boyfriend, to pay only a quarter of the rent, I want to pay 50% of everything. We can share other responsibilities; the cooking, the cleaning, helping each other out emotionally. One day at a time. But until the industry pays better, and until my mental health sorts itself out, I just have to accept that this is all I can contribute financially. And that’s okay.
May is a feminist writer from the UK. She enjoys reading, gaming, and protesting.