My parents grew up poor. Dad’s situation was such that, on some nights, the only dinner option was a can of pineapples. Mom’s seven-member family lived in a two-bedroom house where she shared a cramped room with her four sisters. When these are your stories, money is everything.
Dad quit high school to support himself. My parents married before they were 20, and Dad worked day and night in the residential building industry to change the course of what would otherwise have been a poverty-stricken future. Mom made sure the money he brought home would get us through the industry’s busy warm months as well as the slower cold ones.
They made an exceptional team, providing a comfortable middle-class life for my three siblings and I. They also instilled in us a strong work ethic, ensured we were college-educated, and impressed upon us the importance of obtaining jobs we could be proud of. And of course, they wanted us to be paid well.
In 1998, when Hearst Publishing offered me an unpaid internship in New York City upon graduation from Penn State, my parents were perplexed. I remember the anger twisting Dad’s clenched jaw. He viewed a college degree as a golden ticket. People with college degrees didn’t work for free.
I turned down the internship. Ultimately, I became a lawyer.
For a long time, I thought that my parent’s unwillingness to support me financially so I could take an unpaid internship prevented me from pursuing a career I would have thrived in and loved. But I’ve come to understand that what I needed wasn’t so much money as it was validation. I needed someone to tell me that the fact that Hearst wasn’t going to pay me didn’t mean that I wouldn’t be doing something of value, or that I wouldn’t be valued. When money is woven into your being from birth as the only legitimate measure of professional success, it’s hard to see how value can be measured in other ways.
It took me more than twenty years to decide that, for me, financial compensation isn’t a reliable measurement for the significance of my experience or contribution. I think I have motherhood to thank for helping me finally come to that realization. I don’t get paid a penny for being a mother, but I see the results of the time and dedication I put into my job, and I’m pretty happy with my compensation package.
Six months ago, I walked off the partnership path at a highly regarded Big Law firm to find the road I stumbled off of in 1998. I look back to the moment when I turned from that road and realize that I didn’t need money, I needed bravery and ingenuity. Now I’m pursuing a new version of a career I envisioned for myself when I was 20, glad for the opportunity to be an unpaid Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications. At 43, I finally feel brave enough and clever enough to be here.
Natalie Metropulos holds a BA in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a JD from Duquesne University. She is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Although it has been a long time since Metropulos’ writing has appeared outside of a legal document, she has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt Magazine. Metropulos writes fiction and narrative non-fiction for children and adults.