Today I’d like to share a post by my close friend and writer’s group pal, Virginia Smith. Ginnie, a wonderful writer, is a former acquiring editor at HarperCollins. Enjoy!

A Housewife At Her Business School Reunion

by Virginia Smith

Virginia Smith, John, Meg, Katie

Virginia Smith with John, Meg, Katie

‘Will you be the only housewife at your Harvard Business School reunion?’ my 11-year-old son, John, politely asked me last September.

My partner, Kathy, loyally burst out that I am a writer and full-time mom to our three children. But to the IRS, and my son, I am a non-income-producing housewife.

This past year, I earned the vast amount of $1,000 from my writing, half from the Boston Globe, half from the New York Times. Both heady places, but the remuneration doesn’t put food on the table in our Brookline home.

And we do need money. After 16 lucrative-but-miserable years as a sales representative for a Fortune 500 printing company, Kathy, with an MBA from Yale, is now a happy-but-impoverished Brookline High School teacher. She is finally making over $50,000 – a threshold she cracked 20 years earlier in her more mainstream job. Our family’s income is perilously close to Brookline’s poverty line of $44,174 for a family of five. There’s a reason so many Brookline teachers live in Dedham, Framingham, Allston and West Roxbury.

As I headed out to my reunion, I mentioned to my kids that one of my HBS classmates – and I don’t want to embarrass him, because he’s a total mensch, so all I’ll say is that he’s the CEO of one of the largest financial institutions in the world, happily not one involved in the subprime mortgage-lending scandal – would be there. His remuneration, as they say at HBS, is ’40 large’. That’s $40 million to the rest of us.

‘Pick his pocket,’ my 13-year-old daughter, Katie, said. She’s become a little obsessed with money recently, and runs five businesses: bracelet-making, housecleaning (for other people), babysitting (again, for other people), yard work (ditto) and catering (ditto).

Whenever I ask her to do something – look after her 5-year-old sister for 10 minutes, fold a couple of towels, pick up a pencil she’s dropped on the floor – the first words out of her mouth are, ‘What are you going to pay me?’ If she ever aspires to HBS, I hope her mother’s dismal record of impecuniousness won’t count against her, because she’s got the makings of a real little capitalist – uh, entrepreneur.

I haven’t seen J. (the CEO) since our graduation 25 years ago. When I ran into him at the reunion, I told him what Katie said about pickpocketing him.

J. obligingly put his hand into his jacket pocket and handed me two 20s. A brief internal scuffle ensued in which I told myself that I needed the money more than he did, but that keeping it would be stealing. When I told Katie that I had returned J.’s money, she told me I owed her $40.

I almost didn’t make it to HBS. The year I was accepted, HBS cost $20,000 a year. I was making $11,600 as a book sales rep. I called the director of the financial aid office. Her name was Florence Something, but this being HBS, she was nicknamed ‘Cash Flo,’ though she was so sour, no one ever called her that to her face.

‘You can’t afford to come here,’ she said. ‘I know,’ I said. ‘That’s why I’m asking for financial aid.’ ‘But you can’t afford to come here,’ she repeated with a tone that brooked no argument. That’s when it dawned on me that she was telling me that I was too poor to qualify for financial aid. After a mighty struggle, I finally got the full loan/grant package of $40,000 for the two years.

I haven’t gone to any previous reunions, and almost didn’t go to this, my 25th, because I felt so inadequate as an HBS alumna; I’d contributed no money in the previous 24 years. In his opening remarks, the dean thanked our class for raising $15 million for HBS in the most recent appeal. Perhaps I was the only one to know this was a rounding error. The exact figure was $15,000,025. The $25 was mine.

When I graduated with my newly minted Harvard MBA, I had the opportunity to leave the publishing industry behind and go into something sensible, lucrative and worthy of an HBS grad: managing the Kool-Aid account at General Foods just a few years after Jonestown (true story), or working as a management consultant at McKinsey or Bain at an astronomical rate of pay. To the chagrin of my professors and my then-girlfriend, who left me for one of my high-income HBS classmates, I went right back into publishing.

As an acquiring editor at a major book publisher, I published a number of New York Timesbestselling authors, and Kathy did well in her corporate sales job. When my family moved to Brookline after 15 years (for me) in Manhattan, we were both making the six figures necessary to buy half a house in Brookline Village. But there weren’t many (any!) suitable publishing jobs in Boston for me, so I returned to my first loves: my kids and my writing. We didn’t have any extra money knocking around, but it worked. And then Kathy left the corporate world to become a teacher, plunging our income level to the basement.

I’m still a full-time mother and part-time writer, and still, unaccountably, full of hope. I had a therapist who once told me that if I wanted to live with constant rejection, I should become a writer. She was right. I can no longer afford a therapist, but her words live with me.

But the sad truth is that we can’t afford Brookline anymore. We’ve cut back a lot, but it’s not enough. A trip to Disneyland, promised eight years ago to our two oldest kids, never happened. We haven’t flown anywhere in the past three years, except to my father’s funeral and memorial service. None of us has stayed in a hotel room for the last five years. We go nowhere for Christmas, February and April vacations. Our two-week annual vacation is spent in Massachusetts. We listen to music by lugging the kids’ boom box from room to room, and I spend countless hours wrapping pipes in the basement with insulation, putting plastic over the windows and nagging everyone to bundle up and turn off the lights.

It is not the life I imagined as an HBS grad, but I’m doing what I was taught at HBS: Find out what you do well and love to do, then bust your butt doing it. It’s just that for my HBS colleagues, and most of my Brookline friends, doing what they love engenders money – lots of it.

Recently, I heard from J., my CEO friend. He had seen my essay in the New York Times. His e-mail read: ‘I thought it was a fabulous and touching article.’

My spirits soared.

It is comments like this that keep those of us in the unconscionably underpaid professions – writing/teaching/nursing/social work – continuing to do what gives meaning to our lives. Because it sure ain’t the money.

As for my family, we’ll keep staggering on here in Brookline as long as we can, and hope that someone, somewhere, will feel up to paying me for my work. (Please note: For this piece, I will receive the grand sum of exactly nothing).

Meanwhile, I hope that my daughter Katie keeps her businesses going, and that my children continue to work hard in school and on their sports teams. Unless there is a dramatic uptick to our finances, we, like most Americans, will be unable to pay our children’s college costs. Our only hope is that they’ll win scholarships endowed, perhaps, by J.

Here are links to a few parenting pieces you might enjoy.



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