Earn Less, Worth Less?

A recent revelation: If you find yourself suddenly free of something that you feel you’re supposed to be doing, it has the potential to produce stark internal conflict.

Let me explain:

I’ve held a job consistently (save for a few months of being laid off) since I’ve been 15 years old.

I worked full time for more than a decade.

And while I would never say I’ve done it all alone (quite the contrary), I’ve played the role of main breadwinner for many of those years.  This role and responsibility continues today.

Going to work and providing an incrementally improving quality of life year in and year out was just something I was supposed to do.

I take pride that I was able to move my family from a shitty apartment to a lakefront home.

I take pride that with the help and encouragement of a good man, I’ve turned my financial situation around, making me feel more secure and a better provider.

But recently– my ego, my brain, my something, my everything started screaming at me.

You see, I quit my full time job several months ago to devote more time to other pursuits.

While I don’t regret the decision to do so (there is a lot that’s grand about it!), it has produced some painful byproducts.  It has left me wondering about my identity.

Some guy named Durant (interpreting Aristotle) said:

“We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

This concept is the basis for a seemingly unshakeable bout of anguish for me.

I repeatedly went to work– every day, all day.

See how that’s past tense?  Now I don’t.

I still have some part time work that I do from home– but it’s not the same.

It doesn’t occupy as much of my time as my career did.

It requires less effort (some days).  It pays less money (most days).  It therefore, obviously, is by comparison an insignificant, inferior contribution to my household.

My MIL used to call me the worker bee.

She would tend to the inside of the house. My guy would tend to the outside of the house. And I would go to work to make sure we could still pay for the house.

Of course, I am still paying the mortgage and meeting all other financial obligations during this period of my life.  I planned for this before I quit my job.

And my family has experienced no difference in their day to day lives– apart from me being home more.

But I still feel lost, like I should be doing something that I’m not.

I realize that I will need to up the income ante in a year or so to prevent any disruptions to our normal fiscal routine.

I suspect that the temporary nature of this arrangement is directly correlated to my grief–the need to make this period uber productive intensified– but maybe not.

I thought that I owed it to myself, to my family to spend time, to finish some projects and to explore possibilities that didn’t require me to work away from the home.

But– no matter how I tried to spin it, I was still in a funk over this.  My purpose, my identity was suddenly very murky.

I thought I could mitigate this restlessness, this depressing unease, by doing other things around the house, helping my mother in law and my guy.


I suck at housework.

And–I’m not handy.

So my presence at home doesn’t feel like it contributes anything.

I keep trying.  I cut myself some slack.

These were never my roles before.  I need to learn how to do new things.

But right now, I feel pretty useless.

I actually had a breakdown recently, complete with inconsolable sobbing.

I had hit a snag in my school research– so the project was at a standstill.  I felt like I was disappointing my family, who is waiting not-so-patiently for me to graduate.

Then, I was trying to help my guy lay some rocks in our front yard landscaping.  I didn’t understand what he was asking of me and he basically shooed me out of the way and took over so he could just get it done.

I felt like a total failure– like I was letting everyone down.  The work was easier when I WASN’T helping.

That was it.  That was all it took.

All of the self-worth stealing gremlins constantly sitting in my ear, combined with these situations, tipped me over the irrational edge.

I came into the house, sank into the rocking chair and bawled.

I wasn’t earning (to the level I was before).  I wasn’t excelling in school.  I wasn’t able to assist with a simple landscaping task.

I was failing in vocation, education and domestication.

What the hell good was I?

Who am I if I’m not working full time?  I’m not the worker bee.  I’m not a homemaker, that’s become evident.

Some of my current work does preserve my nest egg so our financial security is prolonged.

But some is for future potential.

I’m working on a doctorate with who knows what opportunities available on the other side.  I’m writing a blog, outlining a book and planning a business.  But again– those aren’t paying the bills right now, either.

It’s all so uncertain, so intangible, so lofty.

My contribution before was quantifiable, concrete and logical.

My MIL fortunately/unfortunately saw my breakdown and assured me that I was doing fine, that I was taking too much pressure on to my shoulders.

Maybe she’s right.

Since my pity party, I have tried to keep things in perspective.  Life is full of uncertainty.  Potential is exciting.  And I didn’t embark on this journey because I was craving security– I was craving happiness and a fresh start.

I had planned well enough to provide the financial stability needed to really make the most of this time.

What I didn’t count on was this whole feeling of irresponsibility, worthlessness, uselessness cropping up.

I thought these would be some of the most relaxing months I’ve had in years.  (In some ways, they have been.  And, in some ways, they still could be- if I let them.)

Instead, I’ve been busier than ever and my anxiety has been through the roof.

I’m trying to find a silver lining to this stress.

I think this semi-retirement period is great preparation for when I’m able to truly retire. I’ll already be equipped to deal with some of the emotions that come along with the territory.

I’ve read that many folks who have achieved financial independence have grappled with these types of feelings– at least to a degree. It’s reassuring to know that this is normal.

I’m also trying to reconcile who I am and what I’m worth outside of my career, trying to think of myself as more than a work horse.

Maybe I’m a blogger?  A writer? A wannabe entrepreneur?

All of those things are still kinda, if not directly, work related.

It’s pretty obvious that this exercise will be a work (ha!) in progress for me.  Let’s try again:

I know that I’m a daughter, a partner, a friend– a damned good person to have in your corner when shit gets real.

That’s more like it.  That last part.

I’m fiercely loyal.  Usually generous.  Calm under pressure (unless it’s drama of my own making– like now).  And overzealous with ambition.

So how are those traits going to manifest into my new habit, into my new way to exude excellence?  Time will tell.

I’m trying to wait patiently for things to evolve, helping them along the way when I can.

I’m hoping that my purpose and identity reshapes itself into something that makes me and others proud and makes me feel whole.

For those that have achieved financial independence, how did you adapt to your new role(s) in life?  Please drop me a comment & follow my blog to see how I figure it out!

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  • This definitely strikes a cord with me. Yes, I’m still working full-time, but I have had my sights set on FIRE for a while now.

    Even though I like to think I would never experience any of these feelings, I suspect that they would be inevitable, at least to some extent…

    I’m curious though. What was your reason for (semi) retiring? Personally, I very much dislike the day-to-day routine; I get bored pretty easily and I often feel like I need a change of pace. I want more freedom and want to do something more meaningful.

    Would semi-retiring afford me all of those opportunities? It’s hard to say. But I like to think so.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Bob. I started the semi retirement because true FIRE seemed so far away and many people and experiences in my life weren’t going to wait for me to get there. I wanted to capitalize on the opportunities that are here today, maybe gone tomorrow.

      I enjoy the variety of things that I have going now– I, too, hate boredom. I also enjoy a lot of freedom in terms of structuring my schedule which is amazing.

      I’m just stuck in old thinking. A loud and annoying piece of me feels like all I am is an income generator.

      I hope that what I achieve in this phase of life helps to combat that. 🙂

  • I struggle with letting go of a to-do list. This is the second summer that I’ve decided to not work. But I’m still tutoring, freelancing, ghostwriting, and wrangling a baby (toddler?). But since I’m not technically working, I often feel like I’m wasting my time or adrift. It’s so silly. I am making a concerted effort to enjoy things like walks and decluttering and playing with my son…and telling myself that is enough. Because it should be!

    • Thanks, Penny! You’re absolutely being productive and I know I am, too. (Although I have zero idea how I’d handle life with a child in the mix– so big kudos for all that you juggle!) Sometimes our brains are unforgiving — but we’re smart enough to know that what we do is enough– and we’re enough!

  • I used to be a full time career woman until my first child. Then became a full time stay at home Mother.
    During that time I went through some of those emotions. Lost my self worth for awhile until I finally focused on what my new role was.
    Again I went through it becoming an empty nester.. what do I do?Who am I? Where do I go from here?
    Those were all questions running races in my head! I finally was asked one question from my sister. “What truly makes Trudy happy?” This one simple question took me over a MONTH to answer!!
    I couldn’t figure it out, I didn’t know what truly made me happy. Was it going to Nursing school, was it getting back into a job full time, was it fostering dogs? I literally couldn’t write anything down because I honestly wasn’t sure if any of those would make me TRULY happy.

    FINALLY after my meltdowns and depression phases 🙂 I finally figured out what makes ME happy.

    I love exploring, adventures, seeing the world and finding new coffee shops and fun things for families to do. I love to share that with people and motivate them to LIVE. Soooo I jumped in and became a blogger.

    I ask you now “What makes Laura Truly Happy?” Write them down.

    Hope this helps 🙂

    • Thanks, Trudy. This is great advice 🙂
      As you mentioned, discovering what makes one happy is a journey– and I definitely haven’t arrived at my destination. I’ll keep seeking, though. I’m so glad that you were able to get on a path to happiness and I wish you all the success in the world!

  • Great post, I love the realness and truth in this. I totally understand where you are coming from. I recently quit my job too and while some days I sit and wonder “why did I quit something stable?”, I usually get a sign that I am on the right path. For instance, I was sulking yesterday, questioning my move when I received a call from someone I used to work with asking if I’d like to come on board to help them! It’s just amazing how life works like that – I know your journey will be the same. Keep up the great work Laura!

    • Thank you so much, Matthew! My journey has had a lot of those positive signs that you’ve mentioned– those are very validating. The idea that more possibilities are on the horizon is exciting and will surely carry me through those moment of doubt. Congrats on your successes– and here’s to many more!

  • I’m sure you already know this, our worth is not dependent on what we do, rather it is based upon who we are. It’s evident that you are an excellent being. Your heart & your attitude shine excellently. You are an inspiration. Whatever else you find to do (or not) is simply a result of the excellence that IS already you. ((Hugs))

    • Thank you, Mrs. SBF! You are wonderful! I’m so glad to have you in my community!

  • Laura, I struggle with these feelings also, especially since trading a faster-paced job for a slower one. I’d also like to discover what makes me happy. So far I think it has something to do with being supportive to others. But that’s not the whole picture. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for articulating your thoughts so well. I loved reading them.

    • April, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I think you may be on to something in terms of how to find happiness. The more I’m around positive people and can contribute meaningfully to their lives as they do mine, the more energized I feel, the more capable I am of facing the world.

  • Laura this post was so honest and well written. I can relate to exactly how you have been feeling most days even at my current job. What you are doing is hard but inspiring and I can tell if you keep doing what you are doing you will go far! You have your goals and you have done well with them. I know only time can will tell where we end up with our blogs and you are doing great! So glad we met!

    • Thanks so much, Andrea! I’m so glad we met, too! I know you’ll continue to crush it with your blog. Your prolific posting and supportive nature are inspiring!

  • A very thoughtful article! Laura, I understand the wierd place you are in. I have freelanced for 25 years, and even now there are days when I think I am not doing enough or making enough money. 10-hour writing days somehow seem lazy, and what about that pile of laundry or the dirty bathroom that is staring me in the face? It is a balancing act, to step away from doubt and move into confidence. You will find what you need to do – and it’s okay if your path changes. You are allowed to change your mind. Everything is temporary, so find what makes you smile.

    • Rosie, thanks so much for your comment. I felt myself nodding when you mentioned the laundry and the bathroom. But in the end, it all gets done at some point (even if I am wearing the thread bare pajamas by that time!). I am finding fluidity in my plans. So much has changed even in the last 6 months. I expect to keep evolving, which is both exciting and a little nerve racking! Anyhow– best wishes– I hope to someday say that I’ve been freelancing for many years. 🙂


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