For the past five years, my standard response to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” has been: New Brunswick is my boyfriend.
New Brunswick, New Jersey is a post-industrial small city in the center of my state. It’s where I was born and holds all of my hopes for the future. It was settled by the Dutch, then evolved alongside the technology of each passing decade. Ferries, canals, railroads and highways brought people through this city. Manufacturing and warehousing provided working class immigrant families with livelihoods. Those industries left, the working classes suffered, but out of the rubble rises a promising economy based on services, healthcare, and the public university to keep my city’s heart pumping today.
As a professional and as a volunteer, I’ve worked in this city to teach kids life-skills in after-school clubs, to educate others about healthy food, to teach community gardening skills, and to prepare the young adults who live here for college or a career.
It’s all-consuming work and I’m not great at setting boundaries. I work weeknights and weekends, routinely leaving hours worked off my timesheets.
It’s hard for me to care about hours turning into paychecks when the work feels urgent. It’s hard to take time off the clock from work I care about. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember I have a personal life or a body at all.
Until, of course, people go out of their way to remind me I am a young-ish woman, my body is open for comment, and my work is aberrant and obstructs my actual value.
Like when that community member looked me up and down while I was setting up tables and chairs for an event, commenting, “Your dad must have a lot of money.”
Because there’s no way my work would be paid for, right? A woman in community work must be just filling her time somehow, not fulfilling an ambition or a professional goal. How could community work be her career?
And since she needs to be clothed and fed, and I don’t see a wedding ring, the man supporting her must be her father.
Truthfully, money is tight for me. But I do nonprofit work for a salary and pay for my own rent, utilities, food—all of it. This is all further complicated by the sky-high student debt I racked up earning a degree in Journalism.
If I choose to disclose the reality of my debt to people, I am shocked that no one ever asks, WHY DID A DEGREE COST SO MUCH?
Instead, they act perplexed that I pursued higher education in the first place.
I have had former classmates or other peers seriously suggest that the way out of debt is to marry a man who will pay off my loans. Men and women tell me this. Often.
It’s pretty clear that to them, the problem of my debt is that it’s getting in the way of me getting married, buying a house in the suburbs, producing children, and tending the home. That’s a woman’s real value, right? Why educate a woman?
Why, indeed. I’ve never found a way to succinctly express that I value my mind, so I invested in it. (While also realizing it is completely unjust that tuition has risen well above the rate of inflation, and is a barrier to entry for many bright young people when considering the current cost of living.) I want to do work in the world and see that work valued. I want to cultivate and then use an expertise, and I’d like to be paid for it.
People in my life tell me I accomplish a lot, wonder aloud how I find the time. Well, I am choosy about how I spend my time. Still, every investment of my time somewhere means I am not spending it somewhere else. I will hands-down always put my time into the things that challenge my mind or make me better at work, at the expense of things that would make me better at the performance of being a woman.
Shopping for clothes, getting timely haircuts, dieting or otherwise trying to change my body to be more attractive to men will forever be at the bottom of my list. (Incidentally, when you lose weight because you’re depressed and in an abusive relationship, lots of people tell you it’s a good look. My current boyfriend New Brunswick, for the record, prefers me happy and curvy.)
The exhausting truth is, no matter how hard I work to do good things in my community or how much I invest in my mind, people on the ground will find ways to try to police my appearance, make assumptions about my body, and remind me that as a woman I am a thing. An object for people to comment on.
The results of the US Presidential election made me saddened and scared. But the truth is, on November 7 I was already tired. My strongest desire in life is to be seen as a person, dammit, to have my mind engaged and my work count for something and my heart known.
It’s been a battle, because for my entire conscious life I’ve wanted to read books, write words, care for others and build something good—while relentlessly being told that my body is unacceptable, and also it is public property, and also my priorities are wrong so shut up and make a baby already. (I want to say something funny here by my hands keep typing, DON’T SEND GIRLS TO CATHOLIC SCHOOL. DON’T SEND GIRLS TO CATHOLIC SCHOOL!)
As of this writing, my body, my mind and my life are the only things that are truly mine. I will use them as I please. For as long as I am able.
The only conclusion I can come to is: I go through every day frustrated that I have to remind folks, I AM A HUMAN AND MY LIFE IS MINE TO DIRECT. But I also read and write obsessively, to feed my mind. Maybe having to constantly express or defend my modus operandi is what I was put on this earth to do.
Other times, I think that I am just going to do the work, and let the work speak for itself.
Laura Eppinger graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA in 2008 with a degree in Journalism, and she’s been writing creatively ever since. She the blog editor here at Newfound Journal.