Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. The prestige: I am a 37-year-old woman who for the past 8.5 years has split my time professionally between jobs as an adjunct professor and substitute in the local (large!) public school system. Between the two, I have always been able to earn a good if certainly not spectacular salary that is right at the nation’s average, have excellent insurance, and get paid sick leave. I have no desire to try for full-time work in either position—the university job because I don’t want to pursue a Ph.D. when I am already $90,000 in debt from the master’s for a tenure job I have scant interest in, and that has scant interest in existing at all in a few years’ time. I do not want to be a full-time public school teacher due to concerns of burnout.
My department at the university basically shut down during the pandemic, as we are an intensive English program for international students. I have been relying on my substitute job for almost two years and it’s fine. My salary has stayed steady (I earn just as much, if not more, than many friends), I still have my insurance, and thanks to the local union, I have banked a huge pile of sick leave that is at my discretion to use whenever I want since I work on call and do not need to request or have my time off approved. I go into work at 8 each morning and leave at 3 p.m. and don’t think of work until the next day. I have all my holidays off.
I think I’m doing great, but most people see subbing as a low-paid, unskilled job, which is not the case at all—especially not in my district, where only licensed teachers are hired for the job. It used to be better when I had the university job to balance it, as people sort of understood that, but no one understands why I am working full time as a sub. I don’t mean to bristle or bring up money, but when someone asks when I’m going to finally go full time, I find myself wanting to quote my not insubstantial day rate, my six weeks of leave to use at will, and every other benefit. I know it shouldn’t bother me, but it does. How can I get past this?
A: I’ll give you a few options that you can pick from, depending on how annoying the other person is being and how prickly you feel on the day they ask when you’re going to go full time:
*confused look* “Did I say something to suggest I planned to go full time?”
“I’m not. Why do you ask?”
“I’m actually really happy with the job and lifestyle I have now.”
“I make enough money and love my work-life balance, so probably never!”
“I make a comfortable salary and have amazing benefits, so I actually don’t plan to make a change anytime soon. What about you, what’s your next step?”
Another option would be to be proactive about sharing how much you love your current arrangement (and don’t love answering questions about it). You could make a point to do this in conversations. Or maybe you could share a mini-rant or reflection on social media to get the word out to more people, more efficiently. For example: “On this New Year’s Day/Women’s History Month/birthday/teacher appreciation day, I’m so grateful to have a job I love that allows me to earn a good living while enjoying work-life balance and plenty of time for my friends and hobbies. I’m often asked when I’m going to go full time, but my current arrangement is perfect for me [insert a bunch of hashtags about self-care and happiness and ‘do what you love and the money will follow’ and how people should mind their own business].”
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Q. Too old to be trendy: I joined the military as a young girl (17) and recently retired (yay!!). Now that I no longer have to conform to the strict uniform standards of the military, I want to explore things I missed out on when I was younger, like fun hair trends, nail polish, and trendy makeup and jewelry. My question is, how do I experiment dying my hair fun colors while still being professional? I am in a management position in my civilian employment (social services) and would like to continue to be seen as professional but also want to make up for lost time. Am I too old/responsible to experience some of the new fun, trendy things?
A: I’m guessing you’re only fortysomething. That’s not old! Besides, in the time you were in the military, having fun colored hair changed from something embraced by rebellious teens to something that people from age 5 to 90 experiment with. Seriously, my mom is in her 70s and dyes the front of her hair bright purple and everyone loves it.
After confirming that your employer doesn’t have some kind of unusual dress code that would prohibit this, go for it. Instagram would be a great place to start poking around and looking for women your age whose style you’d like to emulate. And after a while, seeing these people in your feed daily will change your mindset and help you to realize there’s nothing immature or unprofessional about having fun with your style.
Q. Another addiction: My husband is prone to anger and insults, and we are in a rough patch if not the end times. He has been sober for one year, which has been great, and he seems to think that because he is sober, he has changed. I am very glad he stopped drinking, but it hasn’t materially changed him. He is still, at times, mean, and while he has changed a practice (drinking), he has not changed his behavior, in terms of resorting to insults when he is frustrated (with me or the person in front of him on the road, for example).
I’d like to help him see this, but he can’t. Currently, he’s trying to come off a kratom addiction (I know), and so it seems that he’s bee-boop-ing from coping mechanism to coping mechanism while ego-ing his way through his core issues related to self-esteem and parental abandonment. I have gotten him to therapy before, but he believes that his five visits, required after he sucker-punched a guy outside a bar, fixed him. He’s not a bad person, he doesn’t know how to cope with his emotions. Whether or not we stay married, I do care about him. How do I help him?
A: Respectfully, I think “How do I help him?” is the wrong question. You’ve put up with so much and dealt with mistreatment from your husband. You need to help yourself. Supporting him through his second addiction and fixing his underlying personality and character issues is too much to ask of yourself, especially since he doesn’t seem to be totally on board with this plan. Even if you wanted to, you probably wouldn’t be successful trying to mold him into the person you want him to be. I think Al-Anon or a similar group where you can get support and perspective from other people whose loved ones deal with addiction could be a great place to start.
Q. Homesick: I am an early-career professional in a very specialized field. Due to limited job options, I had to move more than 1,800 miles away from any of my friends and family during the pandemic. There are also very few people in my field in my new state. My new city is really fun and I have made some great new friends.
And yet, I feel personally and professionally isolated and I am constantly homesick. My job is a lot of responsibility and a lot of hours and I’m not getting enough downtime. I’ve been here about six months—how long should I be waiting until I feel more settled? And is being homesick a good enough reason to leave a job, especially because I would probably not be able to get a comparable job closer to home and would likely need to pivot or go back to grad school?
A: I would say six months in a new city amid an ongoing pandemic and limited opportunities for socializing and gathering in groups equal about one or two months in regular times. People everywhere—even in their favorite cities, where all their friends live—are feeling weird and isolated. So give it some more time. I would say maybe even a year and a half.
I also think you should try to sort out how much of your unhappiness is a result of geography, and how much is the result of your demanding work schedule, because those are two totally different issues. But while you’re doing this, there’s nothing at all wrong with applying to jobs in your old city—or grad schools—just to have a better idea of what your options are, and to keep yourself from feeling stuck and hopeless. There may be more possibilities (including less draining roles in your current city, or good jobs that you can get without another degree in your old city) than you’re aware of.
Q. Re: The prestige: “You would insult my occupation and judge my character wanting thereby?! Unsheathe thy blade, varlet, and let us see if thy blade is sharper than thy wit.”
Or you could tell a person that you find your profession fulfilling, thank you very much, and that if they are going to insult or judge you for it, then they can very kindly remove themselves and try not to let the door hit them where the good Lord split them.
A: This is definitely an option. Add it to the script, letter writer!
Q. Re: Another addiction: The best way to help somebody whose behavior is toxic and hurtful is to allow them to experience consequences. Leave, move on with your life, be happy.
A: Easier said than done, but you may be right!
Q. Re: Homesick: I’ve moved several times in my life, sometimes for a job, sometimes for school. Except for college, I moved to places (big cities, mostly) where I had some friends or acquaintances. Each time, the first year was difficult, full of loneliness, self-doubt, and a lot of questions. And this was before COVID, when making friends has become even harder. Give yourself a break, but try to figure out what part of your unhappiness/homesickness is about the location, what part is about COVID, and what part is about the disruption in your life.
A: Great to hear from someone who’s been through this. I definitely think trying to get to the root of the unhappiness will be an important first step—just so you know what problem (assuming there’s a problem other than “living through a pandemic is tough”) you need to solve.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: I think that’s enough for today. Thanks to all the letter writers and everyone who weighed in. Talk to you next time!
From How to Do It
My husband recently had an affair with a co-worker. When I first discovered the affair and confronted him, he said it was just an emotional affair but they ended up having sex one weekend while they were traveling, and emotions ballooned further from there. The whole thing has been the most horrifying, destabilizing experience of my life. My husband has recommitted to our marriage and we are trying to heal, but dealing with the fallout has been horrendous, and I often find myself wondering how to put the pieces back together.
A small part of me wants to go to have sex with someone else, partly to even the score but also just to see what it’s like and have a reference for what it’s like to sleep with someone who isn’t my husband. I can name many, many reasons why that would be a bad idea (including that I wouldn’t even know where to find a safe, casual partner). My husband does not seem to object to this idea, which in turn makes me feel worse that he wouldn’t care. I guess my question is, how do I get the images out of my brain?