“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
“You know who I miss? I miss the coach’s wife,”
“You know who I can’t wait to meet? The principal’s husband.”
[Coach & Tami – Friday Night Lights]
My friend Sue asked me in the pub and my classroom assistant asked me in the store. I have tried to explain by text, and over tea and biscuits at church. I have mulled it over at length with my husband and discussed it in tiny, fragmented pieces of toddler-interrupted conversation with my friend Jude.
I’m taking a career break.
Everyone wants to know why I am taking a career break, and I have stood, a little bit stuck in the corridor and the staffroom and on the phone and beside the car. I struggle, sometimes, to know what I want to say.
I have been thinking about it.
Here’s what I want to say:
I have a leaning towards a quiet, simple kind of life. In this current season of life the combination of teaching and having very young children makes life frantic.
My husband has a busy job. He has busy days, or weeks, or things to do at home. He tries to tell me about it but I cannot hear it. I am kind of pissed off about it. What about my busy day, my busy week, my things to do at home?
Frantic is not a life I want to live. I’m an introvert, so although I love people, I recharge by being on my own. I am not a multitasker, or a go-getter and I understand that now. I am a recovering perfectionist, recovering people-pleaser, recovering efficiency-chaser. Those things damage me but still attract me like a drug.
We have a leaning towards a quiet, simple kind of life. We notice we don’t have it, but seem to have resigned ourselves to its absence. We acknowledge good things: our children, worthwhile jobs. We accept other things: small house, negative equity. C’est la vie.
Frantic is not a life I want to live but it seems inevitable somehow. I start to pay attention to my dissatisfaction but, as a woman, I don’t have the vocabulary to express it. Isn’t ‘busy’ a badge of honour? Isn’t ‘tired’? Isn’t part-time work the best of both worlds?
There is an old favourite quote rattling around inside me, that Henry David Thoreau one, about going to the woods, about wanting to live deliberately.
One Saturday morning I read a post from Glennon Doyle Melton about her daughter telling her she was gone too much for work, that she needed her home. Glennon was proud of her daughter because instead of feeling ashamed of her needs: she spoke them to her people. “She did not assume that something was wrong with her because she didn’t like the way things were arranged. She assumed there was something wrong with the way things were arranged.”
I get it. And I realise, I don’t like the way things are arranged. I speak to my people: my mum over sushi, my husband in the kitchen, my friend Rachel via email.
I didn’t like the way things were arranged but I was uncertain about arranging them any other way. When what you are rearranging is your work life, your career, your side of the SAHM/working-mum divide… then a lot of fear kicks in about making the wrong choice. As I pondered a change my friend Rach picked up on my fear – fear of doing the wrong thing, fearing of missing out on something. She reminded me of Brené Brown’s voice in our culture of scarcity. She reminded me not to be ruled by a fear of scarcity, but to come at this with a belief in enough.
Once I started talking to my people I realised how much I wanted to be fully present in one place. How much I wanted to live deep, instead of wide.
Sometimes when significant things are shifting inside us, everything we read, or watch, seems directly related to our situation. I found myself relating to Wendell Berry’s fictional barber Jayber Crow in his journey to freedom from the pressure that he ought to ‘make something out of his life’. I found myself relating to Shauna Niequist in Bittersweet as her to-do-list became so long and far-reaching that she eventually added the line: DO EVERYTHING BETTER. She writes that one of her core fears is that someone would think she can’t handle as much as the next person. Other women can travel and work and have kids. Everyone has a house to clean. Why can’t I pull it together?
I found myself listening and re-listening to Brené Brown as she reminds us not to hustle for our worthiness.
I found myself pausing in the Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd as Sarah fought to hold on to the most important pieces of herself when her desire to be a lawyer was not just derided and dismissed by her family, but almost beaten out of her. And later, when she lost the man she loved because she would not give up ‘her ambition’. There are so many stories of women that stir me, and I start to become unsure of my burning desire to do the school run. We can’t do all the things, but am I choosing the wrong things? In this novel Sarah understood regret and she said “I’d chosen the regret I could live with best, that’s all, I’d chosen the life I belonged to.”
And so, I am choosing the life I belong to. A quiet, simple kind of life. A career break. And I am fighting the urge to hustle for my worthiness in this decision. There are so many ways to arrange, and rearrange things, so many different kinds of worthwhile work, so many worthwhile ambitions. We may all have little regrets along the way, about the things we don’t get to do, but let’s choose the ones we can live with best.
There is work to do that is only mine to do: a child that is ours to raise, stories that are mine to tell, friends that are mine to walk with. The grandest seduction of all is the myth that DOING EVERYTHING BETTER gets us where we want to be. It gets us somewhere, certainly, but not anywhere worth being.
[Shauna Niequist – Bittersweet]