When I was a kid, becoming the second-wave feminist “Woman Who Has It All” was presented not as an option, but as a requirement. I had to have a full-time career, maintain my own house, get married (to a dude only), have children, and look good doing it. Oh, and I had to be the primary breadwinner, too.
Taking the partial package was never presented to me as an option.
I ditched the “have kids” demand pretty early – tocophobia set in right about the time I figured out that when the “where do babies come from?” book talked about fetuses developing inside the uterus, it means that to have a baby, a fetus would have to develop inside my uterus. No the fuck thank you.
But, of course, refusing to have kids meant I was merely expected to work harder at everything else. Kids were the one excuse to be “sloppy” or “lazy,” to have a messy (but immaculately clean under the clutter) house or to take a part-time job for a while (but never to stop working entirely). If I didn’t have kids, then my career needed to occupy more time in my life than my mother’s career had occupied in hers – and my mother worked 60-hour weeks my entire childhood. (I did our laundry before I was tall enough to reach the controls on the machine.)
The pressure wasn’t merely from my mother, either. It also came from school. I was “smart” enough to have a “real career,” so I was expected to have one – but, being a girl, I was also expected to manage a household, raise kids, please a husband, and look good doing it. Sure, I was told “you can’t have it all,” but neither was the expression of any choice treated as valid if it excluded some part of the “have it all” package.
Meanwhile, the lack of a diagnosis and the achievement of so-called “indistinguishability from peers” (I entered a mainstream kindergarten class and was promoted from year to year) meant I had zero support for my biggest developmental challenges – all of which related, and relate, to executive function, autistic inertia, and faking non-autistic social dances. I wasn’t disabled; I was “lazy,” “inattentive,” “thoughtless,” and “selfish.” What I needed, the adults all agreed, was more chores, more homework, more responsibility.
I looked forward to the day I could work 60 or 70 hours a week and then go home to my very own house. That sounded like a damn vacation.
So I internalized this message: that I wasn’t allowed to work less than full-time, that I was so “smart” that only a fast-track to a prestigious position would do (I really believed that making partner/tenure less than a full year early constituted a failure), and that my house, marriage, and makeup had to be Stepford-perfect at all times. I also internalized the message that every one of my struggles was my fault for “not trying hard enough” – and I was told repeatedly in childhood that “there are places for children” who don’t try hard enough. Places like prison, the state mental hospital, or the gutter.
So if I failed to do anything in my adult life less than perfectly, I failed it utterly. If I failed it utterly, I didn’t deserve to live.
Guess how long it took me to burn out.
I crashed the first time during law school, at about age 24. It wasn’t a full crash, and since the only thing I had to do was appear in class, memorize an outline the day before the exam, and not fail (it is nearly impossible to flunk out of a top-tier law school once you’re in), I managed to keep taking classes while I dealt with it. Everything else went by the wayside. My competitive skating career ended in an instant. I started treating popcorn like a food group. My abusive boyfriend got more abusive because I was spending less time catering to his whims. But taking a semester off was unthinkable. As in, it literally never occurred to me. I was too “smart” for that.
I crashed the second time at the law firm, at age 27, after a year of working 70 to 80 hours a week, straight through weekends, at a salary that wouldn’t pay the medical bills I was racking up to do it. I had to stop that time. That July I was hospitalized after having not slept for five straight nights. I was hallucinating. I had stopped eating. I had no friends, no hobbies, no support group – nothing but agonizing, unrelenting pain and nausea.
I didn’t stop in July of that year. I quit the law firm job in August, after I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt and a doctor finally put the whole damn thing into words even my exhausted brain could understand: “if you do not quit now, you will die.”
That two weeks I spent in the hospital was the first vacation I had ever taken in my entire adult life.
That September, the same doctor gave me my autism diagnosis. The following June, eleven months after the insomnia episode and ten months after the suicide attempt, he told me I was “just about ready to go back to work.” I laughed at him. I had been freelancing from my bed for the previous nine months and had built a viable business. It wasn’t that I needed the money; I was already living with my dad and stepmom, who are reasonably well-off, and they would have paid my bills if I’d asked them. I worked because I thought that if I didn’t, I didn’t deserve to live.
That episode really wrecked my health. I was bedridden for the next several years; I didn’t even begin climbing out until I was 30, and it’s only been in the past two years that I’ve gotten anything like my pre-first-crash health back.
But I almost didn’t. Because as soon as I got back on my feet – literally – I enrolled in graduate school.
See, being almost killed by my law firm job hadn’t made me realize that trying to be “indistinguishable” was killing me. It only made me remember that I never wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. I went to law school because what I really wanted to do, which was to be an English professor or an editor or a writer, was always denigrated by my mother and my teachers. “How are you going to get a job in that?” they asked. “There are no jobs for English majors. You can’t expect us to support you forever. Do you want to be a barista your whole life?”
When I left the law firm, the JDs to jobs ratio in the U.S. was 100 to 1. The PhDs to tenure-track English positions ratio in the U.S. was 5 to 1.
(Don’t believe the grownups, kids. Do your own damn research.)
I also went to graduate school because I wasn’t allowed to not have a career. I wasn’t allowed to not work. But when I went to graduate school, I couldn’t just go to school. I was the primary breadwinner; I had to work as well.
So I worked. In graduate school. Racking up 60 or 70 hour weeks, again, between classes and teaching and work-for-pay I did to make up the significant difference between my graduate stipend and the cost of subsistence in our hometown. I didn’t know what else to do. If I stopped being 500 percent better than anyone else, I’d die. I wasn’t sure of much, but I was sure of that.
I was 31 when I started the Master’s degree. At 33, I burned out again.
This time, I didn’t hallucinate or try to kill myself – I developed a non-stop migraine that, after twenty years of medicating non-stop migraines, I had run out of pharmaceutical options to treat.
This time, I spent three weeks in the Cleveland Clinic. This was the second vacation I have ever taken in my entire adult life.
They asked me what was going on, why I was so overworked.
I said, “my problem is that I have four jobs and I really need to only have three jobs.” It wasn’t sarcasm. I really believed this was the case.
The doctors glanced at each other. Then they put the whole damn thing into small words for me: “if you do not quit now, you will die.”
I guess the second time’s the charm.
I came home, quit teaching English at the local university, and put strict boundaries around the rest of my work: two hours a day freelancing, two hours for AutPress, two hours on academic stuff. Two hours period, not two hours of focus plus whatever time running around dealing with other people’s email whims. Five hours a week for coaching winterguard, because I need to be the adult I never had in my corner as a child. Nothing. Else.
I started playing video games and going for long walks. I started practicing saying “no.” I started learning how to ignore my phone.
35 hours a week. I literally cut my work hours in half. And although I did it to save my own life, I still feel like absolute shit about myself for doing it.
Because 35 hours a week, to a person who has been told since toddlerhood that she has to work harder than anyone else and be 500 percent better than everyone else? Is murder. It feels like the end of the world. It feels like I have completely given up – like I really am the lazy, dirty, flighty, thoughtless, selfish bump-on-a-log I was told I was in childhood. It feels like I will never accomplish anything, like I will never matter. It feels like my entire world could be taken away from me in an instant because I am not worthy of having it. Those “places for children like you” loom large in my mind.
Cutting my work hours did not, by the way, make Stepfording the rest of my life any easier – because I’m autistic, and I always have been. My ADLs are still complete shit. My housecleaning abilities are so bad we actually hired someone to do it for me. I can’t work out how to eat anything that involves more steps than “open, microwave, put in face.” I quit wearing makeup and uncomfortable shoes so I could think. My daily uniform consists of leggings and a long-sleeved T-shirt purchased at my local Costco.
I stopped trying to perfect my household or appearance for the same reason I quit working: because if I do not stop putting in unsustainable effort, I will die. And Stepfording my life was unsustainable. My ADLs are shit. At 33, I’m not likely to “grow out of” my ADLs being shit, as I was always told I would as a child (when I was not being told I was shit for having shit ADLs), and it’s time to stop pretending I can. If I do not quit this, I will die.
But replacing the impossible fight against my ADLs with coping mechanisms that allow me to focus my energy on what I can do (like make money to pay the housekeeper) nevertheless manages to make me feel like shit. “I am a failure as a person if I cannot maintain my own house,” my brain whispers.
The internalized ableism astounds me, as does the self-criticism and self-loathing. I would never treat anyone else a thousandth as harshly for making this choice as I treat myself. Dealing with the PTSD flashbacks my 35-hour workweek generates is a battle that consumes a large part of the now “free” 35 hours.
I cut my workweek in half because if I did not, I would die. I did it to save my life, but I struggle daily with the thought that because I did it, I do not deserve to live.
This is what “high-functioning” looks like. This is what “indistinguishable from peers” looks like. This is what “doesn’t ‘really’ have support needs” looks like.
It looks like working from home because I cannot both navigate a public space like an office and do meaningful work. Working from home should be such a little thing. I do meaningful work. I do work I get paid for. I make just under 50 percent of our household income. I get regular praise and semi-regular raises for what I do. I use all three of my postsecondary degrees every single day. Some of my work is actually changing the world, in ways I could only dream of changing it when I worked in insurance defense. If we’re going to measure human worth by economic output, then by all rational measures, I am pulling my own weight. There’s not a damn thing wrong with what I do or how I do it, except to my own brain.
Working from home is a big thing for my brain. My brain is convinced that because I work from my couch in leggings and a hoodie, I am worthless. That because I do it only 35 hours a week, I am worthless. That because my bookshelves go un-dusted and the dishes wait for the weekend, I am worthless. That because I make “only” 46 percent of our household income instead of 51 percent of it, I am worthless.
Autism is a disability. It’s damn hard to have a job outside our own homes in a world that is not only not designed to accommodate our brains, but is often aggressively opposed to accommodating our brains. I work from home because I cannot juggle the demands to do excellent work and to fake non-autism excellently. I can do one at a time. Both at a time almost killed me. Twice. Before age 35. If I want to work at all – and I do – I must do it in an environment whose inputs I can control.
But I hate myself for that fact, because I have been taught that I’m not allowed to be disabled. And although I’m working hard to divest myself of that belief, the oldest lessons are the last to die. I have never been allowed to be disabled. Now I’m learning how – 35 hours at a time.