The XX Factor

When Career Expectations Are Just About Getting Enough Money to Eat

Marina Martinez started cleaning houses as a teenager to pay for food.

Photo by OLJ Studio/Shutterstock

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the fifth interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.

Name: Marina Martinez

Age: 30

Occupation: Marketing consultant and walking tour guide

Partner’s occupation: Freelance video game editor

Children: None

Location: Portland, Oregon

Hi, Marina. What were your career expectations when you first started working?

I didn’t have any. I just was hungry and needed some way to feed myself. My mom has some pretty serious health issues, both mental and physical, and she just stopped buying food when I was 14. She was still sort of going to work every day, but there was nothing in the house to eat. I called a friend and asked, “What am I supposed to do?” And my friend said, “It looks like it’s time for you to get a job.” So I started cleaning houses. I charged $20 a house, under the table.

I was sort of homeless at the end of high school. I was living in my friend’s unfinished garage, but I had worked enough to have a car. I was also working as a gardener and a math tutor before I graduated. I saved enough to apply to three colleges. I ended up going to Chapman, which is a school in Orange County, California. I got a 50 percent scholarship. By then, my career ambition was just to get a degree, because I knew a degree was a key to a higher pay grade. I didn’t give a shit what I did for a living. I test super well and write super well. I knew English was something I could get a degree in while working full time, so that’s what I majored in.

I worked in the college library, and I thought I’d be a librarian. A librarian there told me, “You need to work at a public library before you go to library school.” So I did, and it turned out it was just the college library environment that I loved. I was poorly suited to a public library environment.

After college, I worked at Washington Mutual as a bond technician. I worked in the bowels of the corporate headquarters in Fullerton, California. I counted how many bonds were in a stack, and then I would put them in the scanner and make sure that the scanner counted the bonds. I did that for eight hours a day, in a windowless room, for $15 an hour as a contract worker. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, and it was kind of miserable.

So I went and got a job as an online copywriter for $12 an hour, though I knew it would bankrupt us, and it did. I would wake up at 5 a.m. and would commute to work an hour each way, then work all day, then I’d come back and I’d do math tutoring because we needed the money so badly. I made more money in college at Blockbuster and at the college library than I made at that copywriting job. My boyfriend wasn’t making anything either. He was working on film sets as a nonunion film editor at the time. I thought maybe I made a mistake going to college. All my friends who didn’t go were buying new cars. They had money to spend and they had a lot more free time.

Then I got a break. I got a job as a marketing assistant at the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists, or AFTRA. I felt like they were giving me a gift, paying me $42,000 a year, and at the time it solved all my problems. I went from paying the power bill down $10 a time to being solvent. My parents had never made that much in real or adjusted dollars. I was working all the time, and I kept taking on more and more projects.

We merged with the Screen Actors Guild in 2012 and I got promoted to marketing coordinator, but actually all my responsibilities went away because there were too many people doing the same job after the merger. I was really depressed for a while. What should have been a triumph for me was actually a failure.

After the merger, they waited a year and laid ​off ​a​bout ​10 percent​ of the staff​. I was sort of relieved that they picked me, because they gave me severance. Then I started working on marketing consulting, and that’s how I’ve been supporting myself. By this time, my partner had started doing well in video game localization. That’s editing the text of foreign games for the American market. He’s gotten a bit of a name for himself within that industry and is now an independent contractor. We moved to Portland in early 2014 to be closer to my partner’s family and my dad.

What was your life situation like after college—did you have a partner then, or did you expect to in the future?

I started dating my boyfriend when I was a freshman in college, and we moved in together while we were in college because we were so broke. He is still my partner today. At the time, I didn’t think I wanted a long-term partner or a husband, because I didn’t want his career to come first, and I was afraid it would happen magically, like I’d wake up with brain damage that suddenly made me want to be a housewife. In my family, the idea was that men paid the bills so they could do whatever they wanted, and women just took it. It was so toxic. So I was totally gun-shy when we first got together. I don’t know why he stayed. I gave him this whole speech, like, “If you want some girl to take care of you, that’s not me. That’s what the capitalist hegemony wants.” It was so over the top!

Did you think you wanted children?

I’ve always wanted to be an adoptive mother. Part of the reason we moved to Portland was to move to a state where there’s a legal framework for open adoption. It’s also closer to family, and Portland is a place where we can see ourselves raising kids. I grew up in Los Angeles, and the culture of materialism in that city is not something I’d want my potential kids to have to deal with. ​Of course, to be an adoptive parent, one must have the money to fund something like that, so we’re back at money being a big part of my plans and dreams for myself.

How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Not at all. I rely on my boyfriend financially, and I have relied on him for the last two years since I got laid off, which isn’t our ideal. Both of us feel that I should be the breadwinner. I like making money, and I like working, and he likes having more time for creative things. That’s how we both want our household to be. But he’s being very supportive of my working less than he is right now, saying I’m building my business now to make more money later. We both think I have more potential to earn more than him.

I started leading walking tours to supplement my marketing consulting, sort of on a whim. I didn’t really know very much about Portland when we moved here in 2014. I didn’t have an occasion to go anywhere, because I was working freelance. Then I saw an ad on Craigslist to lead walking tours. I’ve been a public speaker and run training sessions, and I thought it was something I could do. I started doing the tours ​two day​s​ a week, and I realized it was the highlight of my week. ​So I started giving my own tours and managing the tour I had been the guide for. It’s called the Hawthorne Ghost Tour, and I love it. It’s very early days, so we’ll see what happens down the road.

I’m also looking for a full-time job, because we can’t wait until our roles switch back again. He wants to be the person who takes care of the house. He doesn’t want to be tied to a desk and negotiating contracts, while I love arguing over them!

How does your current life situation match up with your earlier expectations?

The way my family relationships have gone, I didn’t have any belief in a stable partnership. I didn’t think a person could be happy that way. Especially when I was in college, I was a young activist and sort of a Marxist, and I believed people came together out of economic necessity. I thought I’d end the family cycle of poverty and depression to make enough to support myself and never need a man.

But my boyfriend and I—we grew up together. We’ve been through all these challenges, and we’re lucky. His family is amazing. They’re completely opposite from my family. He gives me a good and loving base to work with so that I can be emotionally bouncy and say, I want to start a walking tour company! And he has a center of calm. If he were alone, he would never go anywhere, he wouldn’t branch out. But me alone would be too insane, I’d be everywhere. We can tackle problems as a couple together.

In your relationship, whose career has come first?

My career a little, but it’s mostly equal, because our careers don’t conflict.

What is your housework division of labor?

When I was working a lot, he did the majority of the housework. But my job has always been to clean the bathroom, because he hates it and I don’t care—I used to clean houses for a living, so our bathroom could never be that gross to me. He did everything else.

Since we both became freelance, he has a lot more projects than me, so he’s working more, and that’s a first in our relationship. At first it was really hard for me, I felt really guilty and I felt I had to make up for my lack of income by doing household labor. I’d get really upset. A lot of that was my own fears from my childhood. It was actually sort of misogynistic. I thought of cleaning as “women’s work,” and I didn’t want to do it.

But we talked it through, and we worked it out, so I’d do housework if I felt up to it, but if it didn’t get done and the house was a little messy, that wasn’t the end of the world. It didn’t have to be this big drama. The truth is he gets an enjoyment from household chores I don’t think I will ever get. Now that I’ve been doing more of them, though, I realize their value.

Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?

One of the reasons we’re so broke right now is because I decided that instead of staying in Los Angeles, where I could have made a lot of money, we should move to Portland, where I can be happy. That was a huge deviation from my original career aspiration. From when I was 14, it was all about money. Making it and having it, because I was so worried about being homeless and going hungry again. I thought a lot about money and status and professional gains. But moving to Portland helped me realize that money won’t actually make me happy and fulfilled. We don’t make much money, and I don’t care. Sometimes I wish I had realized that sooner. That it wasn’t money and status I needed. It was fulfilling relationships with my chosen family and friends, and fulfilling work, regardless of how much it’s paying.

Check out more of Slate’s Best Laid Plans series.