confidence, in self and others

When I think about who I was before, and who I am now, one word always come to mind: confidence. I was so sure of myself in all things. In many areas, it was well-founded. In comparison to the kids I went to school with before college, I was exceptionally hard working and motivated. School came easily to me, and I loved to be challenged. College, my first post-college job, all went as I expected. I loved grad school, and did well. I’ve said all this before. I lost a lot of that in the past few years, through grief and more general disappointments.

But I think that because of who I used to be, I am particularly sensitive to overconfidence in others. I am just amazed by anyone who is so sure of themselves that they can, without hesitation, judge others, especially for their decisions. I, of course, do it too, but not all that profoundly and usually only in conversation with Josh. I am not at all sure that I am that wise.

Women from my undergraduate institution can be the worst culprits when it comes to thinking themselves wiser than others. I went to an elite all-women’s college on the East Coast. The winter issue of our alumnae magazine included an article about fashion. I didn’t read it. I thought about reading it before commenting about it here, but then I figured I should just stay with my original inclination–disinterest. When I saw it, I thought, “Huh, I bet this will spark some self-righteous letters.” I don’t actually read the articles in the magazine all that often, but the editors have made some interesting choices recently. An earlier issue, last year at the most distant, was about how alumnae who haven’t reached high stations in corporate America or the government, or whatever it is we value as a class of educated women, feel about their particular accomplishments, or lack thereof. It’s an old joke that the we are a motivated bunch, but kind of striving and unimaginative when it comes to career choices. I think of myself as very different from that stereotype (as I’m sure most of us do.) So, while you need look no further than my closet and really limited accessory collection to know that I wouldn’t read an article with fashion advice, even if it was written by a woman from my college, I thought, “Cool, I’m glad they’re giving an alum in that field a look.”

Sure enough, this month, the editor’s column addressed several letters criticizing the choice. I admit to deeming the letters obnoxious and petty. One woman called the pictures “a waste of space” and continued, “Our magazine provides a forum for many of the world’s most educated, intelligent, experienced and articulate women to express themselves on a variety of topics. Fashion is not one of them.” Another woman asked whether the alum shouldn’t be devoting “her intelligence, and our time, to something more important,” and concluded, “Please don’t waste trees on this useless dreck.” Seriously. It’s an alumnae magazine. The young alum is creative and apparently very successful. I think it’s cool she’s making a success in a field she loves, but it’s not my thing, and that’s about the level of profundity I think the article should have inspired for someone who’s not interested in it. I’m sure plenty of people enjoyed the article.

Is this part of the culture wars, the war on women, the mommy wars, and the whole lot of petty things we do and say to one another on a regular basis as part of our personal discourse around them?

The story of my confidence makes me think so. Longtime readers of my blog will remember that I have a very conflicted relationship with one of my graduate school mentors. Last summer, we had a confrontation at a conference that hurt me. I tried to talk to her about my future plans, but stopped short of telling her my plans to quit academia. I had only come to that decision a few weeks before we saw each other, and I was very nervous about coming out with it. I started by trying to tell her about my writing plans. She mocked them–saying they were “fun”plans I should do once my real work was established. I tried to talk to her about our plans to move to the city–she snidely derided them as a plan for me to become “simply a mom who drives Samuel around to Hebrew school.” The mom and the Jewish comment upset me. Not because she’s at all anti-Semitic–she would have said the same thing had I said we were concerned about any faith or sports or anything that put family ahead of career. But because in that second I realized, “She doesn’t know me at all.”

I am Jewish before I am anything. Once I decided to become a parent, I accepted the obligation to make sure my son gets a good Jewish education, that he knows and grows up as part of a strong Jewish community. Not everyone feels that way, but it’s no secret about me. I came straight to grad school from Israel. I was still in the process of leaving orthodoxy when I entered grad school. I never pretended, or thought, or could have led anyone who knew me at all to believe I cared about being an academic historian more than being Jewish and having a Jewish family life.

A few weeks ago, I finally told this mentor my full future plans in an email. I hadn’t been evading it–this was an incredibly busy, difficult year and I just never had the time and brain power to do it.

She has not answered my email. She had previously responded passive aggressively when I told her I was pregnant again. I don’t know if it was because I waited until I was in the week 30s to tell her–again, that was stress. I just don’t send out, “Hey, I’m pregnant!” messages. It just comes out in the context of other things or when it becomes obvious.

Now she’s clearly ignoring me. So apparently I’m not the only one with a crisis of confidence in me. I don’t know yet how I feel about that. In my youth, I’d have been defiant. Screw her for thinking I can’t succeed at whatever I want. I feel a bit of that now. Definitely hurt, too. It’s not the first time we’ve clashed over our different plans for me–so that’s not new. But I was a little surprised by the email silence. And so it goes.

9 responses to “confidence, in self and others

  1. I struggle with confidence in almost every aspect of my life now. In myself, my body, my mind, my mental acuity, my ability to get this damn dissertation done. But almost 5 years later, after brushes with professionals’ incompetence or poor bedside manner, I find it incredibly difficult to trust most people. And most people in relation to me. Doctors, hospitals, therapists, medical professionals, veteranarians, real estate managers, human resources, much of my faculty, and a few very important members of my family. I could go on. I kind of feel like i’m bracing myself, waiting for the other shoe to drop. To be failed again. To fail again.

    Or maybe just to not get what I want or need from them. It can be a huge struggle to trust that people will do the right thing, or that they will do their best to do the right thing. Or that I can do what I need to do, that I can recover the confidence I had 10 years ago in Boston, before moving to this place, meeting all these people.

    Maybe it’s just a matter of maintaining that trust of which you speak, trust in yourself, in who you are, in what you want or what you do that is a sign of confidence, of growing up. Knowing yourself. Not apologizing for who you are. Adulthood? Healthy adulthood?

    Thinking of you, Sara, and hoping with all my heart for a very safe, healthy and happy upcoming week. xoxo

    • Thanks so much, Sue. So many sad stories start with, “when I left Boston.” Sigh. I’m kidding, of course, but only sort of. I used to subscribe to the idea that a person can be happy anywhere if they just have the right attitude, but it’s not true. Feeling like a fish out of water can’t always be overcome. That’s more about where I am than anything. I know now’s an anxious time for you and C. Wishing wonderful things for you as well in the near future.

  2. Firstly, let me apologize for being ENTIRELY absent during this pregnancy! Yikes! And wow, and heartfelt wishes. What a ride.

    As you know, I’m the academic turned chauffeur (Dr. Mom as I like to say) rather by default, as I felt I had my academic life on hold while I was a SAHM and then got rudely fired from that job when my baby up and died. I’m particularly sensitive to “choices” and the judgments people make of them, and am always surprised by how venomous women can be of each other’s lives (this coming from a feminist). I’ve been labeled stupid, not-forward thinking, incredibly wise and lucky — sometimes all within the same week. I think academic women are particularly prickly because they’ve often made some sacrifices and ultimately desire to be surrounded by a smart cohort of women, and are thus really damning when we decide to leave and do *anything* else.

    I’m still a bit unsteady about where I am and what if anything I’ve accomplished. I find myself getting defensive when going through my work record for new people. But at the end of the day I’m happy, and hell, that’s more than I can say for any number of women with academic jobs. A lot of them are leaving now, too.

    Will try and check in a bit more regularly . . . .

    • Tash, I think you have it exactly right. And happiness is a worthy pursuit. I need to find it to do anything else, and I have so not been happy the past two years. Not depressed, but just discontent. Happy with my family, but little else. Part of my adviser’s problem is that she did make major sacrifices–never had children, married very late. So while she wants to be supportive, she really wants younger women to be willing to do anything to have it all–she feels like she sacrificed so much not just for her career, but for us. So I get it, but I also think she’s just not open minded about how else one can make a useful life.

  3. It does seem (from this side of the screen) that you will be better off without that particular woman in your life, holding a mentor position. I am sorry your relationship with her led to pain and lack of support. That’s never an easy thing.

    Growing and pruning are good and necessary parts of life – and are usually rather fraught!

    Holding you all in my prayers…

    • Thanks Ellie. You made me think, she’s probably angry in part because I *don’t* see her as a mentor anymore, and haven’t been seeking her advice. While I needed guidance in my graduate school career and when I pursued academic positions, I needed one. But as for life, I feel incredibly capable of making my own decisions, and I think that’s where she and I disagree. Her life is one I admire, but not one I’ve ever wanted. We’re far too different in beliefs and background and hopes for the future.

  4. I’ve read your blog for a long time and truly appreciate your way with words. You describe a situation that is, sadly, true in many cases – a woman making many difficult sacrifices to make it in academia. I did my dissertation work in a male-dominated science program and then proceeded to liberal arts academia. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I always feel the need to “apologize” to my former classmates for my current institution as it is a college that not many have heard of. My choice allows me to teach and do research, and have a family. Sometimes I am disappointed in myself that I have not “achieved” more in my research, but for my life, I think it is a perfect position.

    I am thinking of you and hoping for a wonderful week for your family.


  5. Betsy, it sounds to me like you ended up at a great place. I have to admit, had I landed a job I wanted right away, instead of getting two poor fits, things might have worked out differently. I just lost the passion to pursue it, and my mind wandered. I find a lot of my friends essentially apologizing for or justfiying their jobs as well, and I hope they eventually don’t feel like they need to do that. The world works out so differently for most of us than we planned or initially thought it would.

    Thank you for reading.

  6. On a completely diff’t note…I had to laugh when I read the comments from your alum magazine. I knew where you were going the second you said the mag had featured someone in fashion. I’m sure Ms. Judgy Pants NEVER thinks about fashion. It’s completely insignificant to her life. Because surely as a high achieving woman in a competitive field, she knows how completely unimportant fashion is to success. And anyway, even if she does occasionally trot over the Bloomies, no need to know about the people who actually design the clothes! They’re just frivolous, but we, we’re Serious and Important Career Women. 😉

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