Dear Pam Houston,
I have read your personal essay Ambition: A Love Story published in Elle’s April issue quite a few times now. I admit that I am unfamiliar with your work and who you are as a writer. I had never heard your name until my future sister-in-law passed me the magazine and said, “I think you’ll like this essay.”
She was right. I did.
When I first read it, I was at my future in-laws’ house – surrounded by my fiancé, his sister, our nephew, and his parents. We were having brunch together followed by a small dip in the jacuzzi.
I sat on the bar stool in front of the kitchen sink and dishwasher and coffee maker and suddenly became engrossed in your narrative.
My family spoke around me but my eyes were mesmerized to your words and my imagination was aching for your mother – and for you. At one point I began to tear up, attempting to shield my tears from rolling down my cheeks and outing my emotional intensity and connection to this piece. I started choking up when I read:
“When her residuals added up to more than my father’s income, my mother handed her checks directly over to him. He gave my mother $200 every two weeks to buy groceries, clothes, and every single other thing the family needed from the time I was born until I left for college, with no adjustment for inflation.”
You then go on to talk about your father’s flamboyant spending habits with the Italian suits and the Cadillac convertibles.
Financial slavery – as I like to call it – is a real form of control over married women. While my mother was given well over $200 and everything she needed, she did not work while I was growing up. My father was the sole financial provider. And regardless of their relationship (they are now divorced), not having your own money in a marriage can result in a type of oppression for women. I have seen it happen with many older couples with children my age. I can’t count the number of times a stay-at-home mom has told me the secret to marriage, girl-to-woman:
“Make sure you have your own money. Put it aside, put it away, or at least have your own stream coming in. Always protect yourself financially.”
I wasn’t so sure if they told me this as a secret or if they told me this out of desperation for their own lack of financial control over their lives. I think it was both the former and the latter. It is clear though – there is a need for women to be in control of their finances, either equally with their partner or separately.
You come from a line of women that sacrificed their lives (literally and emotionally) for their children. Your grandmother died in childbirth and your mother eventually had to quit working and was chained to a $200 allowance and house chores. From your essay, it seems you were never allowed to forget those burdens.
Naturally, you would want to run away from that pattern. Perhaps even mimic your father’s behaviors – which you point out your hunger for jobs parallels his hunger for work during The Great Depression.
What I am trying to say here is: I get it. I understand your craving for ambition. Your need to work. Work as therapy. Working as a type of liberation for women. You don’t understand stay-at-home moms or wives because that structure chained your mother. And while I agree with finances being a prominent way to control women in the home, I also can’t help but find your point of view on “marrying well” to be slightly narrow.
You write, “I am trying to write about Q without any judgement whatsoever, because what feels important to me isn’t whether my choice is more valid than Q’s.”
However, that is exactly how it reads – which perhaps could be your point. Judging with a sense of passive aggressive jabs: “I have a friend, let’s call her Q, who liked to work in an artistic field – and she was good at it – but then her ambition became to snag a rich guy. It turned out she was good at that, too.”
Is it possible that a woman can have artistic and career ambitions and familial ambitions at the same time? And that once married into a family, being a wife and mother can take over those artistic and career ambitions? Isn’t being a mother ambitious? Isn’t being married ambitious?
I also wanted to add that a shift in ambition from career to family also does not have to do with “marrying well.” There are plenty of women who marry normal or below earning men whose next ambition is to be a mother and wife. Their primary ambition wasn’t to marry well but just to simply marry and start a family.
(I feel strange not disclosing that I am only twenty-five and have yet to see a decade of working or a decade of marriage. You can dismiss me for this fact or even find this letter offensive but I am at this pivoting point in my life: does working become who I am? Or does being a mom become who I am? The answer is: both. And just like you, I will always have a relationship with ambition and my work. Or else, I become nothing. These are the questions I am asking myself. These are the topics that currently consume my mind. And the path has been paved for me by admirable women like you.)
As you have seen in your life, being a mother has its major consequences. Does that not make it the highest ambition of all? To be a mother and do it right?
Perhaps it is not seen as ambitious because it has already been mastered and imposed by the past.
This is not to say that my ambitions are to be a stay-at-home mom or to marry well. I relate with you when you said:
“What I am saying is I work hard, therefore, I am.”
Working has also become my therapy, my center, my grounding force, my identity, my life. Without working, I am about as directionless as a blind cat. If you stopped making art and married a rich guy, you said you would become suicidal.
I would too.
But that doesn’t mean everyone would.
Your concluding thoughts on what ambition means to you were spot on – at least in my book:
“I’ve come to understand that ambition’s real payoff is less about being loved for the work you do and more about getting to do the work you love.”
“The biggest reward for me isn’t the money, it’s the work itself. Work is my pleasure, my refuge, my comfort, my challenge, my definition.”
Your tale is a romantic one in my eyes. Attempting to escape the curse as the third generation of women who have lost their lives for their children is admirable. Work and financial security (regardless of it not truly being about money) have been your answer. You acknowledge that process;
“…if the single most powerful emotion in your family’s home is her [your mother] soul-shattering grief over the absence of meaningful work, that is likely to inform your relationship with ambition. And if most of my striving has therefore been away and not toward, does that mean I’m not as different from the ambitions woman as I thought I was?”
And I admire that confession and contradicting self-awareness along with your admittance that the idea of “ambition” is wildly abstract .
But the question still begs to be answered: “I don’t know where my ambition ends and workaholism begins.”
To which I say (and continuously need to also remind myself), at least spend some “time rubbing the donkey’s head and sitting on the porch watching the cloud shadows move across the mountains.”
Just every once in a while.
The ambition of Earth’s life is just as captivating as the keyboard.