I am reaching a definite point of transition in my life. My children (twins) are 18, seniors in high school. They are elbow deep into college applications, and the excitement on their faces radiates as they inch closer to completing the K-12 marathon. I can tell they are itching to sprint to the end, grab that diploma, and strike out on their next adventure as young adults. And I share that excitement. It has been an incredible journey (albeit a quick one) to watch them grow from babies to toddlers to children to young adults, and I have enjoyed getting to know the people they have become. They are giving, kind, caring individuals who will make positive contributions no matter what path they take.
My own path seems a bit less clear. I have jumped through all the hoops society has laid out for me. I finished high school, finished college, and eventually finished grad school. I married right after I completed my undergraduate degree, because that was a hoop that women jumped through at an average age of 23 back then (men tended to be a bit older at 26). I haven’t always stuck to the prescribed plan, however, as that marriage did not last. At 23 I had no idea who I was, and even less idea of the woman I would become.
I have worked without pause since I was 15 and got my first job stuffing envelopes upstairs in the windowless office of Sealfons in Ridgewood, NJ. For years I have worked more than one job at a time. I did remarry, and when the twins were babies, my husband and I worked opposite shifts and learned to maneuver through the baby handoff—who had been fed, changed, bathed? We kept a chart on the refrigerator. We lost nights of sleep we never recovered. But we continued to work.
I was the mother who could rarely make it to the kids’ events. I couldn’t volunteer at school. I couldn’t bake cookies for the classroom parties. I couldn’t chaperone field trips. I was often chastised for picking the kids up late from after school care. I was working. I was always working. Yes, part of my reason for working so hard was financial. Yet there were other factors. I always felt I had to prove my worth—to show everyone I could do it all and do it well. I could take on a 100 mile one-way commute through a twisting canyon after dropping off my one-year-old twins at daycare, in order to teach four classes and drive 100 miles back to pick them up, and then drive home to endless hours of grading and class prep. I could teach full time, write grants part time, and raise two kids while my husband traveled for work. I became selfless—a top-notch martyr. And when the pressures became too great, and I could no longer contain the resentment, it often reared its ugly head in very unhealthy ways through destructive coping.
Last March I was lucky enough to hear Gloria Steinem speak in Denver in celebration of International Women’s Day. During the question and answer session, a woman who looked to be in her fifties stepped up to the mic and asked, “Why did feminists fight for the right of women to do it all? Doing it all has left me unhealthy, unhappy, and utterly exhausted.”
Ms. Steinem seemed genuinely surprised at the question, yet without hesitation she replied, “That was never our intention. Choice – yes. More options – yes. Having to take on everything – no. That wasn’t our message.”
I can’t go back and change any of my journey. I do believe that while I have not always lived the healthiest life, and have not always been the best role model, I have managed to raise competent, caring, loving kids. I chose to share this story now for two reasons. First—if you are a woman who is struggling to do it all—to be everything to everyone except yourself, I hope you will pause and take some time to consider why you are on this particular path. I often said I didn’t have a choice, but I know now that this isn’t necessarily true. At some level, we can always shift and make changes, even small changes, which can put us on a healthier path. We can’t all quit our jobs. I’m not advocating for that. My work has, at times, brought me great joy while it also paid my bills. But we can examine our motives – are they intrinsic or extrinsic? Are we doing something because we truly feel that to do so makes a difference, or are we merely trying to jump through those socially constructed hoops and please others? Are we doing what we “should” – what we “have to”?
My second reason for sharing this story now is to motivate myself to begin a healthy life transition. I could easily stay the course. I certainly have reason to do so. With two children entering college next fall, I must keep working, or else how will we pay even part of their tuition? How will we pay for it even if I do keep working? Even if I take on another job? Even if we mortgage the house? Once that panic sets in, fear tends to keep me jumping through those socially constructed hoops; fear keeps me on the hamster wheel, spinning and spinning and spinning.
Perhaps I will find the courage to choose a different path. I long ago stopped climbing the ladder in my career. I find myself in an environment where we are asked to do more for less, and to be grateful that we are employed. So I have chosen to focus on my students, and to provide them with the best I have to give in the sixteen weeks we are together. I love teaching, yet my idea of what that looks like is morphing and changing. Maybe it no longer means teaching required courses that I am not fully passionate about and my students don’t want to take. Maybe it means a different venue altogether. It could mean reaching out to a smaller community, one bound by fewer “shoulds”; younger people perhaps, or older. Those who would like support to share their stories, or those who need help expanding their critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. Perhaps I will work one on one with at risk students. Maybe I will go into nursing homes or assisted living residences to help residents share their stories. Maybe I will simply listen.
As a student of mine so eloquently reminded me recently, “To understand a story, all I need to do is listen.”
We could certainly use more of that. By pausing, by being present, by listening, my next journey will begin to unfold. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
If you have recently made a life transition, I hope you will share that experience here. There is so much to learn from our collective experiences.