It’s a question set designers have been asking each other in Toronto for more than a decade – why are mid-career workers forced to take four to six months’ unpaid leave to “recharge”? Given that so many of these women have been part of an industry where off-the-clock work is considered a lifestyle choice, “charging full-on” has become even more problematic.
The problem in Canada isn’t as simple as the privilege of creative jobs, however. It’s not that most Canadian companies have deemed unskilled work to be intrinsically less valuable than many of their high-salaried counterparts. Rather, it’s that employers of all kinds have come to view underemployment as a sign of group loyalty and a societal imperative. Unpaid leave is viewed as an employee choice, which means that employers hold the whip-hand over their workers’ careers. But many employees, like Christin Jennings, are compelled to shoulder the burden of unpaid absences for good reason. As to why she and others like her find themselves stuck in low-paid part-time jobs, Jennings reasons that getting money to put away is almost always next to impossible.
Because I was at the wrong age, when most people are still earning money for the things they care about, my career wound up being driven by work and ideas – not income. I thought of my work as an extension of myself, but it felt different from everyone else’s. Part of that difference came from the fact that many of my friends’ jobs focused on doing things themselves, and there was nothing for me to think about but the end results: seeing a budget, breaking a law or making sure there was enough paint on the wall.
Becoming a mother was an entirely different experience for me. Much of my motherhood – the beginning, middle and end – felt like a plan; everything happened in any number of steps and at any number of hours. I felt like I was fighting hard against an invisible and arbitrary clock; that days were 10s, 30s and 90s. It helped that I was a working mother, but the choices were also very limited by a social contract in which employers wanted their workers to be mothers. I wanted to be somebody, but you can’t.
For most of my career, the only way I could afford to be somebody was to take advantage of the on-the-job experience and leave work to other people. It’s only after a year of raising a child and a year of adjusting to my newfound roles that I was able to stand up on my own two feet. I don’t have a maid or a nanny; I buy all my groceries and exercise on my own.
For all the strength I gained from being able to do my job independently, it wasn’t until I realized that even I wanted to stay at home that I thought about being able to afford to stay at home. A few months after I gave birth to my son, I was approached by a friend who wanted to know if I wanted to take a part-time job as a publicist. It would take away the hours that I would otherwise need to be home with my son, and my friend hoped that my experience might help her get her company to promote me as an independent publicist.
But it wasn’t long before I realized that my experience would be a luxury that I could not afford. First, I was told that I could not easily go back to work as a designer. Then, I was approached by a doctor about the limited places I could work if I wanted to care for my child full-time. Finally, I was hired as a part-time publicist, a job that wouldn’t pay enough to support me without dipping into my savings. In every situation I attempted to climb back to the position of full-time contributor, I was told I would have to get my bills paid first. And that when I did come back to the office, I couldn’t afford to take as much time off as I wanted to because I still owed the company.
I don’t care what kind of person I am as a person, but as a designer, all I had left was my work and any money I could make off of it. I was supposed to use that time as an opportunity to express myself, but I was left with nothing, forced to think about a life that didn