While out on a walk the other evening I determined that my life must be destined to end around the age of 74. How do I know this? Because at the age of almost 37, I seem to be going through some sort of mid-life crisis. Alright, crisis is too strong of a word. Rather, I have been doing some serious not caring about my job and navel gazing introspection and critical thinking for the better part of 2010 that has made me realize I am not happy in my current profession and it’s time to get out.
I wish the cure was as simple as buying a cherry red Maserati, or whatever the female equivalent may be. But since they don’t have a commercial hybrid model (yet), I suppose Plan B needs to be just figuring out what the heck I want to be “when I grow up”. Too bad I didn’t go through this phase in college when I didn’t have a mortgage or family to worry about.
The solution seems simple, right? Not so fast. When the core of who you are–for good or for bad–has been a tightly wound ball of wire that is tethered to “what you do”, it is hard to jump ship into the icy waters of the unknown…especially if one of the ponds that you’re considering plunging into is some version of increased stay-at-home momhood.
… pausing to let those who know me in real life get back in their seat after falling out…
There are many roads that have brought me to this point, some more newly paved than others. First, there’s the obvious: I became a parent 3 years ago. Even though I went back to work when she was 6 months old, all along I have felt this tugging that I am constantly “missing something”. And I am. I thought my longing would end once I got over having missed her first steps, first words and other typical first year firsts. But I am now realizing that a young life is filled with so many firsts that continue well beyond the first birthday cake. I am missing seeing her write her first rudimentary letters. I am missing her increasing confidence in tackling the higher and more advanced features of the playground–so much so that when I do finally get to take her, she looks at me like I am a nut when I try to hold her hand going up the slide stairs. Apparently, I did not get the memo that she’s been doing this on her own for a few weeks now. I am missing her myriad questions of why’s, where’s and what’s. Not that her preschool teachers are not fulfilling these roles, but there is something about being part of that sense of wonder that I simply cannot compete with when I am only with her about 6-7 waking hours a day, most of which are trying to get us out of the house, to the dinner table or up to bed.
I am fairly certain that I am also not meant to be at home with M full time every day of the week. This is where the first road starts to get a few potholes and a little bumpy. My hat is off to all parents who do this day in, day out, often with more than one child. Even though you get to be a part of virtually every joyous or interesting moment, the bulk of it is still hard work–maybe not every day, but a lot of days. Rewarding, but certainly labor intensive. I am home with M on Fridays and it’s great, and I hope to add another or two day as well. But that would probably be about my limit. It’s not that I am afraid of hard work or worried that I would get bored at home, it’s just that I really do want to contribute to society at large in some meaningful way beyond raising a child, as corny as that may seem.
There is also a large part of me that wants to always have my own source of financial independence. Even if I were to win the lottery, I have always said I would still work in some capacity. Witnessing my mom go through what she did when my parents split up solidified that lesson long ago, and it is a constant source of informing my decision to work outside of the home in some fashion. It’s not that I expect my marriage to fail (I don’t) or that I feel like I am not equally entitled to whatever money my husband earns (I know I am), but life is so unpredictable that I want to be able to take care of myself and M if the need should ever arise. Since I have been working since I was fifteen, I don’t imagine that I will be able to stop completely now.
So now what? One of the other roads that has brought me to this uncomfortable place is that I now know that I am not inherently programmed to be a litigator. There are parts of my job that I love–the writing and reasoned analysis is why I stayed so long–but I don’t want the bullshit that comes with it anymore. Unfortunately, there are certain inherent aspects of the job that 1) are never going to go away, whether I stay where I am or go to another firm, and 2) I am not good at, or at least am very uncomfortable doing. When the good parts are outweighed by the bad, it’s time to reconsider options.
Unless it is for something I actually believe in that will make the world a better place in some way that is meaningful to me personally, I have determined that I no longer want to sit idle in an office and do things that either put me to sleep or make me break out in a cold sweat while my daughter is probably missing me (OK–she is probably having a really great time, but that’s not the point). The trade-offs of my current job are simply not worth what I am asking M to do four days a week, nine hours a day. Yes, I contribute to the household financially and provide an example for my daughter (what the example is, I am not quite sure). Some might view this as admirable in its own right, but others (like me) might ask, at what cost?
I have often thought that there are basically two categories of professions: people who do work that allow other people to do things in life (I call them enablers) and people who do what they want to in life because they are driven, talented or otherwise destined to do those things (I call them enjoyers). A few examples. Teachers? Enablers–they educate people young and old to learn new things so that those people can use the information and likely make their own career choices at some point down the road. Doctors? Enablers–they fix broken body parts and systems so that their patients can continue on in life doing the things they want to do. Car mechanics? Enablers–they fix broken car parts so that their customers can continue on down the road to do the things they need and want to do. Janitorial staff? Enablers–they clean up crap other people leave behind and keep things sparkling so that those people can continue on doing what they’re doing. Stay at home parents? Enablers –they stay home and raise their children so that they can learn values and a lot of other things directly from the source best for that child, his or her own parent. Mutual fund managers? Enablers–they manage other people’s money so that those investors can accomplish some other goal like retirement. In fact, almost every career can be deemed an enabler type of profession, if you think about it.
But there are a few pure “enjoyers” out there. Artists, writers, activists, performers and athletes? Enjoyers–they usually all have some iota of talent or inborn qualities that almost compels them to eat, breathe and sleep these professions, like they cannot turn it off and do it for the pure joy of just being able to express or exhaust themselves in this way, even if there are no great financial rewards (think: starving artist). Moreover, there is largely no great consequence from the final outcome of what they choose to do. Their job security is not a function of how much money their clients will make or whether a child learns how to read–instead, it is driven from how much heart and soul they are able to put into their chosen profession and whether it impresses, intrigues and interests the rest of us enough to come back for more. They just keep giving it their all, no matter what. Developing and nurturing these talents and passions take time–but to those folks, it is of no moment. If their big break comes in a few decades, it will have all been worth it because all the while, they were doing what they loved most. And if it doesn’t come at all, they still haven’t really lost anything–they got to spend their lives doing what they love most. Artistic merits and taste aside, if the guys from Metallica or Beethoven or JK Rowling or George Lucas had not just gone for it and followed their passions, they would not have created the awesome things that have become part of our culture. Who’s not to say that Bob from accounting doesn’t have something like that to share with world too? But life gets in the way, and all too often most of us remain legends in our own minds. I don’t think it needs to be this way, and I think life is too short if you let it.
Sure, there is no question that for a lot of lucky people, even though their career might be classified as an enabler type profession, they consider themselves to be enjoyers because they were just born to do that job–there are some really great teachers, stay at home moms and dads, doctors and mechanics out there for whom there was no question that that is what they were born to do. These people are truly talented and happy in their jobs, give or take the occasional bad day. For what it’s worth, it is probably not a stretch to say that some enjoyers are, in fact, enabling others to do other things in life too. Having a respite created by someone who is living life as an enjoyer has allowed me to carry on, just as it probably has for the overworked baseball fan or symphony ticket holder. If I were not able to read books or listen to music in my downtime, I would simply go mad.
For some, being a lawyer probably falls into the category of enabler/enjoyer. Born to be a lawyer, always wanted to be a lawyer, and is very good at being a lawyer–eats, breathes and sleeps the law. I am not one of those. I find it to be a career choice of simply an enabler. All that I have been able to see from the fruits of my labor is that some other person gets to do (or not do) something in their life. Build a subdivision, stop a neighbor from using a part of their driveway, enforce a contract, whatever. For a while, I thought this career choice was the right one for me–fighting the fight for the little guys–and I did, for a time, get some enjoyment out of it. But somewhere down the line, it got old and most days now seem meaningless (although perhaps not to the client) and redundant.
To be sure, for most people, meeting the basic needs in life–food, clothing, shelter–is the sole motivation for taking any job. And waiting until retirement to actually enjoy life and do the things that one actually wants to do is the planned path for most. I respect and understand this wholeheartedly. But what if we consider, if even just for a second, what life would be like if we could all be enjoyers and actually do what we enjoy most and get paid (maybe not a lot) to do it for some portion of our non-retirement, younger and healthy lives. How many of us out there are amateur this or hobbyist that? What if we turned the world on its head and allowed reprieves now and again for people, for at least some space of their limited time on this planet, to do something utterly and completely different from their current job? A life sabbatical, if you will. A doctor who leaves for a few years to become a local playwright. A computer programmer who puts away the keyboard and takes out the camera and creates that documentary halfway across the world. A lab technician who trains intensely for a few years and gets to eat, breathe and sleep soccer. Who says that only those who decide (or discover their superior talent) at the age of 17 or 18 that he or she will be an artist or an athlete should be the only ones to enjoy life in this way? I have recently come to the conclusion that they should not. I was just too afraid to answer the question because it will likely mean doing something totally out of character for me at some point down the road. And likely face a lot of rejection along the way.
Incidentally, this is why I think that college is better served for people in their 20s and 30s–when it comes down to it, a lot of people end up where they are because of paths they started on at the age of 14 or 15 while in high school. Can’t get into a good college or find a good job unless you do well in high school. Can’t get into grad school or get a better job unless you do well in college, which again, was based on how you did in high school. Can’t move up in the ranks unless you do your job well, which is based on all that came before that point. Think about that: the reason that Chief Justice Roberts is head of the U.S. Supreme Court can probably all be boiled down to what he was probably doing in his late teens. I don’t know what you were doing at 16 or 17, but I am pretty sure that listening to Depeche Mode and Anthrax and wondering how I’d look without braces is not going to make me a viable candidate for Supreme Court Justice any time soon. But that’s where I was at mentally when I applied to college. If I could go now, things would be very different…including the choice of beer!
So maybe I am going to live past 74 after all. If I answer my true calling and feed my passion, and stay at home more with M, then perhaps I can use retirement for doing the things that really matter at that age, like learning how to play shuffleboard and mahjongg and learning to like Manhattans. If nothing else, this recent exercise of figuring out that I am not necessarily where I want to be professionally has taught me that life is too short to not consider other options, at any point in the game. Although, considering that my life insurance provider has me living until 90 years old, I still have 50+ years of hard core living to do. I am determined to not let it go to waste any more. Provided that one goes about it responsibly (find a way to eat and keep paying the mortgage or sell the house if you have to) and thoughtfully (don’t trade in your train pass for the pro circuit titanium golf clubs until you’ve researched all the possibilities first), I think that it is OK imperative to keep looking inward, find your true passions and talents, and follow them. There is nothing wrong with shaking things up once in a while–and it will probably cost a lot less than a cherry red Maserati.
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