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.