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The Job of the Daughter
Journalist Wendy Strain shares how being taught early on to be grateful for opportunities kept her from negotiating and asking for more throughout her life.
It was never stated outright, but always seemed to hover there in the air: You’re the daughter, your job is to sacrifice for the family.
What that meant in the real world was half wages for the leading position I took while helping my parents build a business that would, they said, “secure our futures.”
Employees got free child care, and my folks would let me and my child live in the foreclosed house they’d purchased for my younger brother to move into when he finished college in a year or two.
I just had to make the mortgage payments and fix it up so it would be acceptable to live in and ready for resale sometime in the future. They’d consider helping with materials and supplies as needed — that meant lots of DIY.
"Some people," my mother would remind me, "don't have families to rely on."
Still, the arrangement was OK with me. Family was always give and take. I needed to be thankful to have a family.
“Some people,” my mother would remind me, “don’t have families to rely on.”
As an adopted kid, I was so lucky to have a family that cared about me.
Plus, I’d been the one unwise enough to have a child with the I-told-you-so deadbeat who’d disappeared without a trace.
Without a family, I’d have been on the streets with my baby. By following Mom’s directives, I could fit a few college classes around my work schedule and still earn my degree — I wanted English, but my mother decided on early childhood education. So, I double-majored on scholarships and student loans. My child and I were very fortunate indeed.
Except the feelings of guilt and encumberment established a precedent.
When I was offered a well-paid dream job, I couldn’t take it because the family needed me too much. As the daughter, I believed I must give up those unrealistic dreams for the good of the whole.
When my house was sold out from under me to benefit my brother and his new wife, I accepted that it was my fault I didn’t have a job that paid enough to cover living expenses in the area.
The family business paid my brother twice what his role would normally pay (and my salary was half). He was the man of his family.
Never mind that the family business paid my brother twice what his role would normally pay (and my salary was still half). He was the man of his family. It was up to him to support his wife — though in my mind, she was an adult capable of work herself.
It would have seemed unfair of me to ask for fair wages from the family just to support my baby. My parents still had another son at home and had just bought a new house in the right ZIP code.
I accepted the blame.
But I’d started to read the writing on the wall. Friends outside of the family saw my worth and encouraged me to pursue my dreams.
When I was offered a position in newspapers, closer to my chosen degree field, I was so grateful. I accepted below-average wages that wouldn’t cover living expenses in the spirit of doing what was best for the whole, even though I wasn’t working for the family anymore.
I did the same thing in the next job. And the one after that.
Even as I was building my skillset and experience, gaining confidence and building my own family, I always carried the expectation I should accept whatever opportunity I was given, grateful for the recognition of my talent, and not be greedy by negotiating for better wages.
Negotiation was never something I was taught and didn’t know I was missing. I was the girl. I was simply to accept whatever crumbs others were willing to throw my way. In fact, I was actively taught not to argue or push for more.
It took far too long for the situation to come to a head. I always thought my low income was my fault, somehow a reflection on my abilities, intelligence, talent, experience, age and so on. If I could just figure out where that failing was, maybe I could finally cover my needs with enough extra to enjoy life. As it turned out, it was my fault, but it wasn’t because of any kind of character defect, as I’d thought.
The breaking point started when the family refused me a micro-loan to start my own business, a step I wanted to take to break my pattern of low wages. The bad partners I accepted instead drained the bank accounts as soon as the business reached success.
I lost my home, business, paycheck and family ties almost all at once.
It never occurred to me that anyone might owe me anything. If I’d been a good daughter, I would have given up on my own interests and done what the family told me to do. I wouldn’t have been in such a mess.
Girls should never pursue vocational success. Our job was to serve the family needs, even above our own dreams and desires.
That’s what the voice in my head kept saying. Girls should never pursue vocational success. Our job was to serve the family needs, even above our own dreams and desires. Especially above our own needs.
I was again grateful to the family just for covering the cost of a moving truck, and my husband and I sold off everything we could. With what was left, we should have been living in a box with the kids.
Instead, we found ourselves in a beautiful location just blocks from a vacation destination – something we could be proud of.
With a roll of nickels, a roll of dimes, an empty gas tank and a handful of checks to a bank account we no longer owned, we managed to secure an apartment just before closing hours on a Friday and a grace period “until our funds transferred over,” which really meant figuring out how to earn that first month’s rent in a hurry.
Good thing we were resourceful journalists!
Even then, though, the family constantly reminded us of whatever failings they perceived us to have, of how undeserving we were, how I should have been a better daughter. My lack of success was because I hadn’t followed the family blueprint.
Grateful for the opportunities presented to me, I was all too eager to accept too-low wages coupled with too many demands
I fell into old patterns. Grateful for the opportunities presented to me and relieved to have my experience and talents recognized, I was all too eager to accept too-low wages coupled with too many demands and too many jobs at once until I burned out and called it quits.
Once again, we packed up a truck and moved to a new location, one with lower living expenses, more natural scenery and less-crowded spaces to enjoy it in, and I spent months healing. We used our previous experience to knock our bills down to the minimum to give me the space I needed.
In a dazed state of overwhelm and exhaustion, it finally dawned on me. I’d made a good living through all those years, not just in the difference I’d made through my work, but in income, too. Not great income, but solid middle class, always with the benefit of following where my heart led.
If only I'd known to negotiate. If only I'd valued myself.
Through various jobs, I’d shaped the culture of small cities, helped uncounted businesses launch, and contributed to the development of large research centers, schools and new, cleaner technology. Whether my bank balance reflected it or not, whether the family recognized it or not, I’d made the impact I’d envisioned I’d make.
If only I’d known to negotiate. If only I’d valued myself, my bank account would have offered a healthy retirement when I needed it. But I was the daughter. That wasn’t my job.
About the author
Wendy Strain is a ghostwriter, editor and writing coach, working with entrepreneurs, business owners and consultants to capture their expertise in written form. By incorporating quality storytelling throughout your brand, you can attract your ideal clients more naturally, enjoy the process more thoroughly, and highlight your uniqueness more fully. She also works with fiction authors to build high-quality novels that communicate your imagination in a polished and entertaining way.
Image by Tim Douglas via Pexels.