I’m a mistress. Like all mistresses, I get to experience the mini-dramas of last minute change of plans, the disappointment of cancellations, the self-doubt coupled with the ongoing uncertainty of my status, my value, my contributions.
And I get to experience all of this without any of the associated perks of mistress-hood: the forbidden trysts, the overpriced lingerie, the expensive dinners, and the soul baring conversations. Nothing steamy here. My mistress-hood arose as a consequence of the 21st century workplace. Bear with me.
My employment status is, like many in the gig economy, a precarious one. According to Forbes, this phrase is ‘basically just a buzzy way of describing an independent contract or part-time job.’ Once a term reserved for those only employed in notoriously hard-to-land or ‘one-off’ jobs – think actors, comedians, and models landing a gig – it is slowly becoming a preferred economic model. Hello, Uber!
For the better part of a decade, my primary source of income – my job – has been as an adjunct lecturer. Here in Australia, it’s referred to as a casual lecturer. And it’s a job I really enjoy. (‘Why don’t you just leave him?’ you ask the mistress. ‘Because I love him!’ she quips. The parallels continue.) ‘Casual’ means that I live one semester-based contract to another, peppered with plenty of (unpaid) downtime in between the gaps in the university’s teaching calendar.
Indicative of today’s employment climate, I’ve often used the analogy of being The Other Woman in a relationship – only mine is with an (often-thankless) employer, rather than some hot married dude I’m convinced is my soul mate. Also like the mistress, I, too, often suffer at the capricious will of the man – in this case, the university. Employment-wise, I’m great for the mess-mopping, to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps where and when needed, and for last minute availability (2am booty call? Can you do this by yesterday? Great, thanks!).
And also like a kept woman, I’m definitely not worthy of a long-term commitment. Despite my loyalty. The form of security I’m chasing is being awarded a permanent job. But my situation has only been exacerbated by COVID-19, and all of its unforeseen consequences.
While the university sector may appear to be fairly stable – more people than ever are going to college, right? – the exploitation of adjuncts and of the casualization of yet another sector in the workforce are both well documented.
A 2019 article in The Atlantic exploring this issue states that ‘now roughly three-quarters of [teaching] faculty are nontenured’ – compared with 80% of positions being on a tenured track just a generation ago. It’s a system built on false hope, misguided assumptions, and the good faith of an exploited and well educated workforce. It’s the dirty, open secret of the higher education sector in many Western countries, and Australia – never one to miss a trend – has willingly followed suit.
My employer, now emboldened by the changing circumstances of the current economic crises, has more reason than ever to not (in the words of Beyoncé) put a ring on it. My university has been handed the perfect-storm of excuses as to why it can never make me the wife – to award me the sick leave, the advancement opportunities, the year-round pay check, that I so rightly deserve. (Fortunately, health care is not an issue here.)
Adding salt to the wound is the COVID-inspired mantra of ‘But you’re lucky to still have a job!’ Which is true, even though my teaching workload and income have both been halved as a consequence.
So, how can I make peace with just being the mistress? First, there are my students. As I mentioned, I do love the work that I do. And much of that is derived from the teaching, but also the relationships I develop with my students in the brief time that they are in my orbit. It’s great to see them develop as writers, and to be a small part of their longer educational journey.
Next, there is the freedom being a mistress – erm, I mean, adjunct – affords me. If I want to nip away for a haircut, or I need to pick up one of my kids from school, well, I do. The flexibility of contract work means that no one is really watching over me, day-to-day.
My reduced workload, while not ideal, also allows me the freedom to undertake some side-hustle freelance writing work. Which, if I’m honest, I probably love just as much, if not more, more than my teaching and my students (sorry, guys).
Yes, there is constant uncertainty. But in seven years, I have never not been employed. So I just can’t sweat it anymore. It’s not worth the mental anguish I create for myself. If there is no contract – if I get essentially fired, but without the golden handshake – well, I’ll deal with that when and if it happens. Given the changing nature of workplaces, downsizing, restructures and the like – is there even such a thing as a permanent job anymore? So I just have to accept that this is okay. That I’ll be okay.
While ‘acceptance’ does imply a certain new-agey passivity (not my strong suit), it has been critical to my survival this year. And it’s been a powerful tool. Instead of feeling like I’ve given up, or given in, this mind shift has actually – eventually – provided a welcome sense relief. It’s taken a concentrated effort on multiple fronts (meditation, feel-good reading, quitting alcohol, lots of yoga) but I think it’s working. Maybe the Buddhists are on to something.
The gig economy is here to stay. So I’m just going to continue to embrace the uncertainty – and all the possibilities that come with it.