Still Seeking Validity, or, Self-Worth Struggles for Bread-Eaters

“I’m a writer,” I say proudly, adding on the descriptor of fiction, entertainment, or food and drink depending on the company. “But I don’t support myself or anything.”

Ah, there it is. My caveat. Why am I compelled to add it in? Something within me thinks it’s important for people to know, although it isn’t. It’s none of their business how much money I make in my career, but somehow, after six years at this gig, I still view my financial contributions to the household as an essential part of my identity. Other bread-eaters I know have had to deal with judgments as to how they spend their days from other people, and I wouldn’t hesitate to rise to their defense, raise my voice and yell, “How dare you try to devalue this person’s work?!” whether that work be a career, raising children, keeping up a household, or a combination of all of the above. Yet I do it to myself all the time.

I’m ridiculous. You’d think I’d know better by now. Way back when I left my last day job to pursue fiction writing fulltime, I wrote a post on how I was struggling with financial dependency—nay, not just being financially dependent on someone else, but choosing it. That was before I could call myself a professional writer or a published author. I now have a nice long list of accomplishments, and I know I spend the same amount of time on my career as most people do in their workplaces. But my primary emotional battle remains the same: accepting, again and again, that my self-worth does not need to be connected to my financial contribution. You’d think I’d have an easier time with that seeing as our income has risen every year since. But I still get hung up on it.

I’m proud, you see. Proud that I put myself through college. Proud that I could fully support myself until the age of 29. Taking pride in my financial acumen, in the independence that it provided, was a key aspect of my identity until I took that jump into writing fulltime. It provided me with validation that I now have to find elsewhere. And inevitably, that elsewhere starts as a side writing project that eventually overpowers my passion project—writing fiction—because fiction brings in nominal income even when I do sell a story or get royalties. So I devalue it and slowly but surely reprioritize the projects that bring in significant funds. My first few years, that was copy editing dissertations and manuscripts until I realized I was no longer working on my fiction. In the last two years, that’s been writing for an entertainment website until I had the wake-up call that maybe, maybe, the reason I couldn’t get the motivation to work on my second novel was because of the 5K of polished words I’d churned out on articles over 2 days.

How do I realize I’ve done it again? A growing sense of dissatisfaction with my work develops, and I eventually have that aha! moment of realizing it’s because I’m not engaging my creative side. Which isn’t to say nonfiction isn’t creative, of course, but it doesn’t feed my soul in the same way. After I make that realization? The downward spiral commences: I must convince myself, yet again, that it’s okay if I don’t contribute funds to our income, and that I, Becca Gomez Farrell, somehow deserve this amazing opportunity to pursue my dreams when so many other people can’t. What right do I have to live this privileged life? And yes, I mean “privileged” with all its social justice connotations. Why is it okay for me to take advantage of this opportunity; what did I do to deserve it other than picking a great husband?  It feels selfish of me to even consider spending my days spinning yarns in light of what other people face.

See how good I am at self-defeatism? I should have earned a black belt in it by now. And funnily enough, whenever I do surmount that hurdle and really dig into my fiction, I do pretty well at it. Imagine that! Those are the periods in which my short stories or novels progress, when I’m able to see the larger picture and not let so much time go between edits that I forget what wall I even hung it on. It’s when the gatekeepers of my industry—magazine editors, small press publishers, et cetera—seem to like what they see and decide to go ahead and publish my work because I’ve put in the time required, honed my craft enough to put out good, entertaining stories.

Publication gives me validation, and it’s a validation at least equal to the financial type. When I get an acceptance email or kind words from a reader, I’m reminded that maybe, just maybe, this writing thing is what I’m best at and maybe, just maybe, pleasing readers is a worthwhile use of my time. Lord knows how important being entertained—by novels, short stories, films, television, performances—has been to my own life. You’d think I wouldn’t forget it so easily.

An interesting point that just occurred to me is that the validation I receive from publication is validation from others for my work, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve clung so hard to pursuing traditional routes of publishing; if I were to self-publish, I wouldn’t get that sense of validation, and that probably says more about my hang-ups than it does about self-publishing. Perhaps I need to do a better job at valuing my own work outside of receiving other people’s “permission” to view it as worthy. Hmm, I fear I’ve opened a whole other can of worms to consume…

Another way in which I seek validation, but that is ultimately detrimental to me, is through my household roles. My husband doesn’t ask anything of me relating to them, because he somehow gets it, on a more basic level than I do, that my work is valuable and a worthwhile use of my time—I am not expected to shoulder more of a household burden just because I’m not commuting to an office. Yet I still try to find validation in my household roles for myself. Were I a mother, no doubt I would count taking care of the children as a significant contribution. But for me, not having children is one less excuse for not being more productive, more successful, more fill-in-the-blank than I am. I do manage our finances and I do most of the cleaning, though Ben does the laundry most of the time, which guess what? I feel guilty about. I cook a few nights a week, though I feel like I should be cooking more often because I’m just staying at home, right? Not doing something of value like bringing in income.

I even have trouble counting essential parts of my job as work because reading should be for recreation, right? And critiquing other people’s work is just something extra I do, not an essential part of honing my craft? (Hint: It is absolutely an essential part of honing my craft.) Heck, I don’t even consider generating invoices when I’m on a project to be actual work because it’s not billable work.

To sum up: I’m ridiculous. If I do ever get that best-selling novel, it will throw these validation struggles out the window once and for all, right? Doubtful. Chances are it won’t and that I’ll need to keep proving to myself, over and over again, that what I’m doing is a real gig—more than that, that what I’m doing is a valuable use of my time and a valuable part of who I am.

Six years in, and I love this fiction-writing life yet struggle with it daily. Here’s hoping that I’ll someday give loving it the immeasurable value that it deserves. Couple that with brightening a few other people’s days with my words and images, and that would indeed make for a great job.

What say ye, bread-eaters? How do you find validation in your lives outside of breadwinning? How do you counter arguments from others, or yourself, that your chosen life somehow doesn’t measure up to one where you’re taking home a dependable paycheck or that the time you dedicate to your career/work/duties is somehow lesser than the time someone spends in the workforce? And have you been able to battle any of these self-defeating thoughts and leave them in the past, once and for all? Because I want your secrets, and I want them now.

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