the triumphal end of a long, purgatorial struggle with vocation, sans the diploma

Posted by on June 1, 2013

This June we will celebrate one full year in St. Louis. The anniversary feels significant to me. The first year in any location is a kind of trail blazing effort. We had to do it in DC and then move here and do it again. But once it is done, it is done, and that initial effort does not have to be repeated. This summer we can happily say: Hooray– we are not moving! And that alone is enough to celebrate.

We moved here a year ago feeling a little bit like a Swiss family by the name of Robinson washed up on a beach, needing first and foremost to assemble shelter and other of life’s basic necessities as hastily as possible before the start of the school year. And I think what we assembled worked well enough under the circumstances. Knowing that we could not afford private school and that I could not bear to enroll my six year-old in a rough and tumble city school with failing performance, we chose the location of our house in this suburban area based on the reputation of the schools for being excellent. We found our preschooler a cozy, traditional preschool, and I found a rather cozy part-time job– all within a two-mile radius of our house. Thus, an entire lifestyle commenced last fall for the girls and me revolving around this three-pronged anchor (referring only to the part of our life here that involved the girls and me, and not even getting into the lion’s share that was Jeff’s part, with finishing his dissertation and holding down a brand new teaching position). So, I threw this anchor over the edge of our little vessel and watched it sink into the opaque depths hoping that it would hold us all in place on a grid of oceanic stability and possibly even happiness and harmony. And certainly, the plan worked well enough.

And nothing went drastically wrong. Nor did anything happen that radically contrasted with my initial expectations (except perhaps for the fact that I had failed to factor in just how much driving around this schedule would involve). Nevertheless, as the months wore on the day-to-day reality of this tidy configuration began to feel hopelessly imbalanced, cumulatively exhausting, and finally, unbearable. I began to feel incapable of focusing on the simplest tasks at work and was also perpetually frustrated that things at home were being constantly left undone for the sake of a job that really did not compensate me financially enough to make it worth leaving our home in a state of half-neglect.

So that was the job part of the equation. I felt exhausted from running back and forth to this job and exhausted from the job itself, which could potentially be the most pleasant job in the world for the right person, because the people at this little church were perfectly pleasant, and the job itself was not really that demanding, but it was so unsuited to me that I felt like a withering plant trying to stay alive in the wrong kind of soil and climate. I learned my lesson. I will never in my life take a clerical job again unless circumstances make it impossible for me to do otherwise. I felt like the bored school child sitting at her desk–the child who has her fair share of brains and talent but gets labeled as stupid because she cannot stay interested in the task at hand. Yes, in the end this job made me feel stupid.

When I was younger and working in these kind of non-profit office environments, I was better at faking it. When you are young you are fueled by the desire to please your superiors and the desire to appear to everyone as if you have your act together. When I had that twenty-something energy and no children to drain my resources I could easily peddle harder and faster as needed in situations that really did not come naturally to me. Now I realize: I never was really good at this office thing to begin with. I was always overcompensating for my weak spots by channeling frenetic, crisis-management style energy toward problem spots as they arose. Now I am older, slower, more stubborn, less apologetic, and much more comfortable in my own skin, which are all wonderful things, except that they do not translate well into people-pleasing and faking it on the job, which, in this particular circumstance, turned out to be a not so wonderful thing.

Meanwhile, at home I have been getting really into making things, gardening, and, oddly, cooking. I can hardly explain what is happening, because these things were sometimes very burdensome to me when we lived in apartments. But I have heard other people say that buying a house can inspire a change in some people, and maybe that is what is happening for me, because I find myself moving toward a way of being that is deeply–really deeply–domestic. I suppose I come by it naturally, because certainly I can point to plenty of people in my family tree who were also this way. My dad, most obviously, was an inveterate and very stubborn do-it-yourself-er. Growing up I watched him do anything and everything around the house that could possibly be done– building bookshelves, laying floor tiles, carpet, and wallpaper, and dozens of other things with thrifted, second-hand materials. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

That’s about all there is to say about my part of this first year– a year I would call almost experimental– in St. Louis. I might add that on a deeper level– the one where I am always looking for symbolic meaning, connections, and synchronicity– I found it strange and fitting that the day after we returned from traveling to attend my husband’s PhD graduation ceremony in South Bend (photo above) was the day that my job truly ended. As it happens, I began many of my struggles with vocation and identity at the same time that my husband began his academic life at Notre Dame, and passed through many phases of struggle with self-worth as it was wrapped up in my educational background and my sense that I lacked a focus for any kind of real career. In the past year I have felt much of those doubts and struggles winding down and falling away as I’ve finally become so much more comfortable in my own skin and willing to embrace the possibility that by nature I am simply not cut out for any kind of clear-cut career path through this world. And, hey, it looks like life has opened up and made a space for me to opt out and still find support and security. All is well, so why should I fight and wrestle with some vague idea of what I should be doing according to some superficially imposed standard. It seemed deeply meaningful to me that I have been able to make this peace right as Jeff’s PhD ended. I will probably always look back on his student years as a kind of arena in which we were each going through our own particular vocational purgatory. Of course, he has a diploma to show for his and I do not, but maybe that is just my way of slipping through the cracks of this world to dwell in the nooks and crannies where I’ve always felt a greater sense of belonging anyway. And we both made it out. Now I can just stay home and sew, cook, garden, decorate the house, and do artistic projects without feeling ashamed. Yes, I just said that out loud.

I began this blog post with the intention to write about my (our, really) decision to homeschool our now-second-grader, but I guess I needed to express these other things first. There is a wide sprinkling of reasons behind this surprising ( surprising to me) decision to homeschool, but really a fundamental change in myself has been at the core, so it makes sense that I would need to express these things before I could even write about the other reasons, which are in many ways more peripheral. I read a blog post recently that affirmed for me a lot of my frustrations with my own education as I felt that it did not prepare me very well for my path through adulthood. I was in the “gifted” program in high school (and the one English class I got to take as a result was an absolute godsend for me, and what inspired me in college to be an English major), but when I saw this article with this photo of the bored girl, I immediately related to it. I wasn’t the brilliant type of kid described in the article (who can pick up higher math and languages with just a cursory glance), but I think that my particular gifts were suppressed and I was terribly bored and miserable all through school, and in so many ways I feel as if I have spent my entire adulthood so far trying to figure out and recover many of the things that my public education failed to reveal. I think that this is a big part of why I desperately want things to be different for my kids so that they can enter adulthood with more clarity and purpose and not waste so much time like I did, only to take a clerical job in their thirties which they are completely ill-suited for. What nonsense.

So I will just end this post here and write down my thoughts on homeschooling in my next post. 

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  1. annajouj
    June 17, 2013

    Musing much lately on the hugeness of mothering: the daily grit of it, not any romantic notion of what it should be . . . thanks for being honest with yourself and all of us about the struggle to keep a life/home/child balance. You're doing well, my friend.