After I gave birth last June, I felt like I had died. My mother came over to help often; the lack of sleep and aggressive postpartum depression had all but immobilized me. I was fragile, unprepared, undeserving. I had called this soul into the world, given him a body, and now had no idea how to support him.
“Maybe you’ll write a best seller,” my mother said.
I laughed. Something about that has always felt ridiculous to me; I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not capable or don’t want to be. I had worked during my pregnancy, twenty hours a week in a candy store, getting paid under the table, and the rest of the time freelancing whenever projects came along. Now my funds were running out, and there was no money coming. The incredible saving habits my father tried to instill had been lost on me.
“Or,” she said, “You could get a job for once.”
“What are you talking about? I’ve had plenty of jobs.” I thought of them all. Barista. Bartender. Bookseller. Candy-store clerk. Content writer. Dishwasher. Editor. English teacher. Fetish model. Maître d’. Makeup artist. Phone-sex operator. Research assistant. Server. Sex-store manager. Tattoo-studio receptionist.
“Yes, but they weren’t real jobs.”
She’d said it before, but this time it opened a hole in me.
My parents are immigrants. My mother came here with a fifteen-year-old son and pregnant with me, because my father got a teaching offer at a university and we had the option of more options. When my brother was young, Poland was still Communist. You were lucky to find a single jar of mustard in the grocery store. An orange for Christmas was the ultimate gift. Things had changed by the time I showed up, but they were scarred. Here was America, land of opportunists.
When they moved here, my mother didn’t work. In Poland she had been a research chemist, but here she didn’t speak enough English for that to matter. My father’s salary was way below the poverty line, even for the ’90s. She was filled with anxiety. If anything happened to him, the family was fucked. She started watching TV to learn English and limped her way through Danielle Steel novels. Eventually she landed an adjunct gig, teaching Polish at the university. “If you say córka like kurka again, I’ll shoot you,” she joked to her students, whose hard English tongues weren’t made for the soft rolling c.
“Jak umiesz liczyć, licz na siebie.” This was the mantra. If you know how to count, count on yourself. By the time I was in school, my father was making enough to support the family, but she went to work anyway. She had been raised by a single mother and knew fathers were there until they weren’t.
For most people, a real job is a way to make a living without having to cobble together income from a million side gigs. Sometimes it also offers modern-day luxuries such as health insurance, maternity leave, sick days, and so on — the 9-to-5 equivalent of a Golden Ticket. It used to be that people associated some degree of respectability with a real job, but now the ultimate aspiration is making money while getting your human needs taken care of, because jobs with those benefits are increasingly rare.
For a few lucky people, a real job manages to tick off the previous boxes while also being something they’re passionate about. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, OK, if someone decides to pay you for it. Kerin Rose, creator of A-Morir Eyewear, whom you may know from all those bonkers shades made popular by Lady Gaga and Rihanna, definitely has a real job, despite not having a real job. Stephanie Danler, best-selling debut author of Sweetbitter, signed a six-figure book deal while working on the lowest rung of the service-industry ladder. One might argue that these aren’t examples of real jobs, just incredibly profitable gigs. Which is honestly about as real as it gets.