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Stephanie Wyeld
September 5, 2021

Does Free Work Count?

Nobody wants to hire the PTA mom or the choir secretary.

The dust of being a stay-at-home mom has long settled on my body. Nearly nine months into the pandemic, I reached the eleventh anniversary of the last time I did professional work using my degrees and my experience.

LinkedIn emailed me a job the other day. The algorithm felt I’d be qualified, and I was flattered at the honor, so I read it. The job sounded beautiful. The description jumped out at me in a way that these things had stopped doing in the past many years. “Non-profit,” “kids’ health,” and the name of the local children’s hospital.

In general, I would barely know how to find a job these days. I can hardly find a pair of matching socks. The dust of being a stay-at-home mom has long settled on my body. Nearly nine months into the pandemic, I reached the eleventh anniversary of the last time I did professional work using my degrees and my experience.

I click on the link and read on. My qualifications are right on the money. Masters degree, check, experience managing projects and programs, check, coordinating teams across multiple locations who didn’t work for me and probably didn’t want to be coordinated, check. In fact, the “nice to haves” are even there: clinical experience, consulting experience, research experience, experience working with ambiguity. I’m checking all the boxes and my body starts to tingle. Maybe, MAYBE, now is the time to go back?

Perfect jobs don’t come around very often.

I start talking about it. I feel the old familiar rush of warmth as I call my dad, who has aged so much, and tell him about a job I’m excited about. I start digging out my resume (where the hell did I keep that thing? Is it on a floppy disk?)

And then, the crushing reality: I haven’t had a paid job in eleven years. No hiring manager will want me.

Sure, I’ve volunteered. I learned bookkeeping, how to navigate the CRA, charity tax returns. I’ve hauled furniture to lecture halls and paid the pianist, and swept rooms after concerts. I advocated and researched and presented budgets. Once I ran a parent council meeting so efficiently, a woman came up to me and said, wow, you are really good at that, you should do that professionally. I remember thinking, as I stood in the school library in my workout pants and ponytail, yes, thank-you so much, good thing I have that graduate degree so I can make sure someone volunteers to run the fro-yo day at the school.

The compliment left me on a high for days, I will admit.

But volunteering isn’t enough out there in the wild. Nobody wants to hire the PTA mom or the choir secretary. Free work doesn’t count.

That evening at dinner, as I flipped burgers on the barbeque for my family, the tears came. Racking, ridiculous sobs of the hormonal teen variety, except my hormones were synthetic and the words that breathed from my mouth were older and sadder.

“I used to be so smart”

“I miss being a professional”

“No one would ever hire me”

“How can I be a feminist when I have given up the entirety of myself?”

My children patiently and quietly watched me as I tearfully powered through dinner, and clean-up, and bedtime. That night this depth of sadness sat with me, insistent. As the tears gathered helplessly on the chest of my husband’s shirt, I thought of how women throughout history have given up their whole self to mother their children; I thought of my countless professional losses to childrearing.

The whole of me has changed. I mourn the woman that I was and could have been.

And yet, today, I can’t find the regret.

Instead, I find pride. I think of all the times I’ve achieved things that seemed impossible. The time my grades weren’t high enough to get into the university program I wanted and how I figured out how to get in anyway. How I paid for it myself. How I arrived in a foreign country and did temp jobs until I found someone who believed in my ability because I proved it to them. How I knew what it was like to be poor, and how good it felt to save enough to fly home to visit my mom. How I travelled alone with no real plan and came out the other side alive. How I had achieved promotion after promotion on the back of grit and hard work. How I raised my kids, lonely and tired, when my husband was travelling and working long hours. How I could carry two children, on my person, navigate the subway system, and attend appointments with them on my lap without breaking a sweat. How I had written a book, with no literary skills to speak of, and found friends and allies in the writing world, even having started from scratch in mid-life. I thought of my kids: funny, kind, independent, and not at all clinging to my proverbial breast.

I marvelled at how I always found a way, even if it wasn’t in the direction I imagined.

Call it divine intervention, call it leaning in or out or whatever you want, but women always find a way. In some way, we all lose a little of ourselves as we go through life. It might be becoming a parent, it might be taking the job that makes us feel like a sell-out. It may be a relationship that binds us too tightly or ignoring a passion or a talent.

Maybe we can’t go back, exactly. But we can always go forward.

It may not look the way we imagined. And it may be a lot harder than we expected it to be. We may be dismissed and ignored and laughed at and gossiped about and stood on and disagreed with. But the beautiful road ahead still lies before us, with all its rocky descents and brutal climbs. It will come with beautiful waterfalls and construction debris.

We may shed ugly tears in the night.

We may be called old or out of date.

But women have something innate about us to keep on. We have done more for less for centuries. Right or wrong, forced or unforced, we have something genetic about us that makes us able to be and do so much.

And for a minute, instead of seeing how much of myself I have lost, I choose to see how capable I am.

I still don’t know if I will apply for that job. Probably, because why not? Maybe the LinkedIn algorithm just gets me. And if not, rejection is some of the most excellent writing fodder.


Stephanie Wyeld made her writing debut in grade eight when the teacher read her story about the Titanic aloud to the class with the lights off for effect. She has a B.Sc.(Kin), an M.Eng, and a penchant for volunteering. She has recently given up the prestige of counting money for the PTA and is now on the executive the of the Canadian Author’s Association - Toronto branch, and the Writer-in-Residence at Heliconian Club. Her first novel is currently out on submission. While she waits she bites her nails and writes her next book. Her words can be found in Sammiches & Psych Meds and Huff Post Funniest Parents. She is on Twitter, @steph_the_twit and on Facebook.

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