My opt-out manifesto, of sorts, part 1

I have been struggling, a lot, to figure out what to do with my life. I have an incredible amount of angst and guilt that I haven’t yet found what I’m going to do when I grow up, because I thought that part was over more than 10 years ago. I would be an historian. I would teach at the college level and write books. For more than two years now, I’ve known that I no longer want to be a professor. Yet I’ve struggled to explain why, and what would come next. I’ve felt the disappointment of some of my mentors. I’ve felt the judgment of colleagues and peers. I’ve been reading countless articles and seeing references to women “opting out” on Facebook. I am at-home more than not right now. Yet I don’t feel like I’ve opted out of anything other than a profession and place that wasn’t working for me. I’ve tried to articulate why, and felt like I’m implicitly insulting my husband and closest friends–but really it’s just about me. I’m not satisfied.

When I die, I want to feel like I’ve done some tangible, positive good in life. I also realize I want recognition for that. I have taught hundreds of–maybe a thousand–students in my short career. Many do amazing things. Several keep me up to date on their lives. I’m well-enough liked by the majority. When I try to talk about why teaching doesn’t make me happy, I get advice. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s that it’s not enough for me.

I love writing and having my work read. I want a wider audience than I could possibly get as an academic historian. I know I could aim for a popular audience, and that might happen someday, but I don’t care to do it with a tenure clock clicking.

I’ve seen students go a long way towards accomplishing their dreams, and I’ve felt left behind because I was not getting closer to mine. I’m supposed to just feel proud of them, like that’s my reward. Instead, I often think, “when is it going to be my turn?”

I’m trying to figure it out. I almost made a major career change this summer, but in the end, it didn’t feel right. The decision came down to “would it make financial sense?” — and it didn’t. I was disappointed for a few weeks, but recently, I realized that if I’d really wanted the job, I probably would have thought of reasons we could go into debt for it. I’m irresponsible that way.

“Opting out.” I’m not doing that, and I wonder how many women implicated in this discussion feel that they’re not either?

I am opting to admit that even though I am in my mid-30s, even though I have two kids, I still have a lot of hopes and dreams that are just about me. Most importantly, I am opting to admit that I have more value in this world than the exact market-value of my skills. 

Recently, the rabbi at my synagogue asked what we wanted our children–our own kids and our students–to achieve in their lives. He said most people say they want their kids to be good people, but that they, in fact, reflect a different message that accomplishment, academic but mostly professional, matters most.

I’m still thinking about what I want out of my own life. I want to be “good” more than anything. I felt like I had no time to think about that when I was balancing full-time one year positions, my family, and the search for a permanent job. I knew I could keep striving and be rewarded some day with what was supposed to be the perfect job in a perfect place, but I have been doing that for so long. I know plenty of people in our field do that for longer, but I at least hope they felt more satisfied than I did with  the work they were doing in the meantime. I began to wonder, what’ll happen if I do that for so long and then suddenly my kids are grown up, or we’ve moved them around every few years of their childhood, or we’ve spent every Sunday and evening working and now the kids don’t want to go to the park or for a bike ride with us? I got sick of that striving for the future, and I wanted to focus on the present. I wanted to stop and to figure out how to do my best in the place that I was, with the family that I had. I’m still ambitious, but I wanted to start putting that drive into what I already have, not what I think I want.

Right now, the place I am, literally, this neighborhood, is one of my dreams come true. It’s an urban neighborhood, with a great group of people involved in improving it. When I was a teenager and first realized the profound inequity in my own hometown, I thought I wanted to do something about that. It happens that in this neighborhood we randomly chose, the opportunity to do just that kind of fell into my lap. I went to a meeting about making the neighborhood more kid friendly, thinking I would meet some people for play dates, Instead, I’m now helping to organize an after-school and evening program for teenagers. I kept raising my hand and speaking at this meeting, and I had no idea I still had this hope inside me or those ideas. (Anyone want to donate?)

But my point here is, I do have ideas, and even though I have moments where I think, “Holy crap, everyone thinks I’m a failed PhD,” or “just a mom,” I actually have a heck of a lot going on. I stopped, I look around me, and something I wanted to do revealed itself to me. 

I’ve been working for weeks on a nerdy blog post about the “opting out” stuff, but it keeps getting lost in the tangents. Life never stops. We aren’t only valuable if we are always striving to achieve on some externally determined path. We aren’t only valuable if we have a job that lets us buy more stuff, or can pay for private school tuition, or lets us get our kids the after-school Chinese lessons. We aren’t only valuable if we’re someone’s boss, or if we break the salary barrier for women. I hate the term “child-penalty” because it gets me involved in what feels like the wrong debate to me. I don’t care that much about getting women access to the top of a system, when what I really want is to knock the top off.

Meanwhile, I still have my individual dreams, my hope for personal renown. But if I die never having published my novel, will it mean that I failed at life? Will it mean that quitting academia was a mistake? I hope not. I think not.

7 responses to “My opt-out manifesto, of sorts, part 1

  1. Leslie Blakeburn

    As you say, it’s about you. I believe our lives are a journey, and it’s the journey, not the destination. You will go where you are supposed to go- just as you landed in this neighborhood and found something you loved, you will continue to do this. To quote a dear friend of mine who quoted someone else, “There are no coincidences, only dancing lessons with God.”

  2. You know, part of the brilliance of Ashton Kutcher’s little speech the other week was the ‘build your life’ concept – you get to decide what it looks like, rather than adhering to external expectations about the usual – or most high- status – paths.

    My journey is already well off the ‘usual’ paths, and while I still want the academia piece – it’s certainly not going to include the chasing-after part that we watched you do and that is so widespread. Much of ‘opting against’ doing that running-after-positions thing is centered around not wanting to uproot the kids, just as you said. It will carry a professional cost, surely – but that’ part of why economic theory is bankrupt. Concentrating on the present requires courage, but it’s also not that uncommon, I think. People really don’t make their decisions based on the best financial outcome. They don’t. When their (our) reasons are so thoroughly thought-through and/or sincerely felt, all the better – and the opportunity to build community becomes real.

    • I just love that you said “brilliant” and Ashton Kutcher in the same sentence. Also, I think you’re right. It’s actually hard for me to concentrate on the present though. I have to remind myself of it, all the time.

  3. I love this. I don’t have time to say more, but that I’m so glad that you went ahead and wrote this.

  4. Wow. I have this thought every single day, really. And have since about three years into grad school when I pondered dropping out and doing something else. (In retrospect, I probably should have gotten a journalism or law degree. But I’m not a quitter. Easier to stay than leave and all that.)

    I could ramble on but a few thoughts: I often remind myself that academia now is not remotely what it was when I was growing up watching my dad, who was a professor, and who largely shaped the idea of attaining this awesome job where I had freedom to wear what I wanted and do what I wanted to do. And people would pay me to think! And write! and fucking TALK about things! And eventually there would be time to coach my kids teams and just be a great parent. Like my dad. WELL. 1) my dad, is, you know, A GUY. There were zero women in his department who weren’t secretaries when I was a kid. My lady friends in academia today — and I have many who are in both arts and sciences — really, really struggle on a daily basis with parenting, promotion, and just flat out sexist bullshit. I often think academia has let women in, but not really dealt with what that means. 2) Funding for universities has hit the skids and they just aren’t hiring/promoting like they used to. This is all said in your defense for thinking that it’s just not for you. It may well not be. And I’ve kinda met my peace with that.

    What I really struggle with frankly is not wanting to leave a nice epitaph about what good I did (although that would be awesome, no question) but what my own kids will think about women and moms. I think coaching has helped both me and them, and seeing me involved in my community with fundraising (even if it makes me a bit batshit) is good, too. But the JOB, the good thing, whatever, I hear ya. Hoping when someone toddles off to PK this fall I can finally FINALLY set up my office and focus a bit on me. who knows where it will lead. Will perhaps follow yours. Glad to know there’s someone else turning these thoughts over.

    • Tash. Yes. As the child of high school teachers, I imagined getting a PhD and working in a college or university as a way to merge their love of education with lifelong learning, esteem, and a really cool office with floor to ceiling bookshelves. Silly me.

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