When I was a 23-year-old freshly out of a very good New England college with a degree in English and having absolutely no luck finding a job after nearly a year, I was faced with two choices: Accept that I was not likely to find a job in my field, despite sending out hundreds of applications per month, and find a new career. Or, go to grad school and delay things a little further while figuring it all out. Since I had nearly no debt (under $10,000) because of my scholarships in undergrad, and was accepted into several incredible MFA programs, I made up my mind almost immediately. “Every student has some debt, it’s normal” are actual words that I told myself as I was singing the papers to a Master’s program at another very good New England college.
Now I am 25, hold an MFA in Creative Writing, have nearly six figures of debt, and work as a nanny to two different families in Manhattan while living with the rest of the 25-year-old MFA holders in Brooklyn.
The two families I work for, because nothing is ever convenient now that I am no longer in the beautiful bubble of private academia, are located on pretty much opposite sides of the island. One family — for whom I do the most of my nannying, on pretty much a 9-to-5 schedule — is located in the Upper West Side, near the Columbia campus (where I sometimes sit to write and have coffee and pretend like I am still a student). The other family, whom I mostly pick up some night and weekend work when they’re going out, is located in Tribeca. They are younger and cooler, but also have a full-time nanny from the Philippines who does most of the difficult work while they are both away at their jobs in consulting firms. When I’m working for them, the kids are mostly asleep, so I do a lot of writing there, too.
The second family I don’t know that well, but the first, I know fairly intimately. The wife doesn’t work a full-time job, but works part-time out of her home office as a graphic designer. It makes for a very complicated dynamic — I’m always there, she’s often there, but I’m the one watching the kids. If the baby cries, it’s my job to go and do something about it, even though it’s probably her that he wants. I try not to let my more bitter instincts get the best of me and hate her, or even put on her an unfair expectation of duty based on her gender (work at home is still work, just as real as her husband’s, and childcare should not be entirely her responsibility by default). But my own sense of disappointment and frustration at my lack of work prevents me from feeling much of anything towards her except resentment: resentment that she is able to work at her own pace, doing what she wants to do, because her husband is a rich motherfucker.
The truth about grad school is that, yes, the debt often makes your life harder. Pretty much everything I earn from my second nannying job has to go right back to my loans or I’ll never stay ahead of the interest. But it’s more than that. Having my advanced degree (especially from a prestigious program which constantly reminded us how good we were, and whose professors were some of the most accomplished in their field) makes me feel ashamed of my work, in a way I wouldn’t have been before. Yes, I know, objectively, that an MFA in Creative Writing is not some hot ticket to a future of novels and galas and agents clamoring to work with me. I know that it’s not the kind of degree people seek if their immediate goal is a lucrative job. But looking back, I realize now that I felt assured, in some unexplainable way, that things were going to be okay because getting this degree was going to put me in a different social caste. I would now hold a Master’s. Of Fine Arts. Which I like saying, in full, to this day.
I am lucky, in that I have a few (as in two per month) paying jobs writing now. But they are technical writing, and worlds away from what I was doing when I was a student. I miss the act of having my writing — the real stuff — critiqued and evaluated, judged for my craft and not for my ability to submit a very specific number of words about a product, inflected with the least amount of my personal voice. It seems unlikely that my career will ever reach the point I allowed myself to dream it would, and at least until I find a more efficient way to manage my loan payments, I don’t think I’ll be getting out of the nannying rat race anytime soon. I am making a very good rate at both jobs, for what is objectively easy work, so leaving it would be foolish, particularly since I am able to get a lot of writing done on the job.
Sometimes I look at the dynamic that my primary family has — rich husband, artistically-fulfilled wife, comfortable children — and I wonder if the most simple solution wouldn’t be to get myself on Tinder and swipe, swipe, swipe until I find a finance guy who is willing to float me while I take on the writing projects that come. Maybe I could even find time to write a novel, and someone to buy it. I think about the life that this family has, being exposed to it all day nearly every day, and I admit that the longer I am surrounded by it, the more appealing it seems. I’ve always been a woman with intense feminist values, raised by an incredibly strong mother (who works in academia herself), so I feel disgusted at my increasingly-frequent pangs of class envy. But saying that I work as a nanny makes me want to forget my Master’s entirely, because my whole situation feels vastly less embarrassing as someone with just a Bachelor’s. And it would be much easier to embrace my advanced education if I had the lifestyle that reflected it.
Yes, it’s all meaningless status anxiety and social climbing, but it feels impossible to escape sometimes. And at the end of the day, I am still going home aching and tired and smelling of Play-Doh, regardless of the pieces of paper with my name on them (some of which happen to be very, very big loan repayment plans). How could a marriage for money be more degrading than toiling away at something I hate, to repay a bank for something I don’t practically use? These are the questions I ask myself, right before I’m filled with self-loathing (and usually a glass or two of cheap red wine).
Does all of this make me regret my Master’s? No, not really. I loved the experience more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life, including a two-month affair in Europe with a very good looking Greek man. In many ways, the memories of my time in the program sustain me on my most tedious or challenging days, and remind me of all the rich, wonderful bits of knowledge that now swim around in my mind. I revisit advice from an old professor, or a particularly insightful critique from a peer. Even though it is not my profession, I still get the most wonderful thrill from writing, reading, and thinking about literature. I might just be another nanny working for a rich family on the Upper West Side, but there is a life of the mind that lives within me, one that no screaming child can take away.
Alison is a sometimes-writer and Trader Joe’s addict living in New York City.