Friday, April 6, 2012

My non-career: totally okay.

I got my first job when I was 15, and have been working ever since. Wow—that means I've been working half my life already. In that time, I've made money as a

retail clerk
janitor
parking ramp ticket-taker
house painter
gas station attendant
car wash attendant
rental car attendant
cocktail waitress
human guinea pig at a testing facility
stripper
First Aid/CPR teacher
optician
nanny for a German family
advertising salesperson
call center worker
magazine editor
technical writer
research assistant
library page

and I’ve attended many types of schools, including

forensic photography/police academy school
bomb squad school
phlebotomy school
beauty school
4-year degree school
graduate school

Some of those jobs were just to pay the bills, while others were attempts to find my “calling, my “passion.” Having come of age in the 1990s, I was taught that if I just found my true calling, then I’d love my job, and then I’d get good at it because I loved it so much, and then I’d make a lot of money at it. If I just found my life’s passion, my life would have purpose, meaning, direction, and fulfillment. I’d jump out of bed every morning, eager to start my day. “Do what you love and the money will follow!” career advice books exclaimed. “Hire yourself for your dream job! Turn your favorite hobbies into your own small business!” I was also taught that I shouldn’t let boys have all the fun—I too should do something exciting and adventurous for a future career. I should be a doctor, a lawyer, a president, an entrepreneur, a jet-set, glamorous, dynamic CEO-type who wears power suits and can buy herself a Ferrari, and not just be the wife of someone who drives a Ferrari.

Along with that came the constant advice, “Whatever you do, for God’s sake, don’t get pregnant!” And “If you have sex, you’ll get an STD and you’ll get pregnant, and then your life will be ruined forever.” STDs and pregnancy were lumped into the same category so often that it seemed like babies were STDs. If you got pregnant, you were an irresponsible knocked-up slut who had no self-esteem and no self-control and should be ashamed of yourself. It didn’t really help that in my family, we didn’t celebrate birthdays, and when the women in my family got pregnant (in their mid-20s), nobody screamed with joy or had little parties with hors d'oeuvres. Instead they spoke in hushed, angry tones, frowning and huffing in exasperation and disapproval. I never knew anyone who really wanted children, especially not my own parents. A child was a mouth to feed, and pregnancy was a horrible mistake that happened as a result of poor decisions, or something that happened to women back in the days when wife-beating was the norm. Educated, modern, independent women don't have babies--they have adventures and see the world!

Belle: childless, thin, smiling, beautiful, the object of men’s desire. 
Woman with kids: plump, frazzled, ugly, and a cue for the audience to laugh.

So there’s that stereotype: the woman who has multiple kids that she can’t feed, who’s just a breeding machine and a burden to society. And the other stereotype, equally disturbing and insulting: the woman who’s getting old and whose "biological clock is ticking," who nags and pressures and manipulates her man to get married and have kids against his will, when all he wants to do is be free and have a good time, and she’s there to make sure he never has any fun ever again. Or the other stereotype I hear all the time: that women deliberately have children in order to pry vast sums of money from men.

I don’t want to be any of these scorned characters, and I don’t want to end up with the stereotypical man who either leaves his pregnant woman because he doesn’t want to deal with a baby, or who sticks around but resents his woman forever after and bitterly refers to her as “the ol’ ball and chain.” So I’ve tried to be really careful about the subject with the men I’ve dated...who were so concerned about waiting for The Right Time to have kids that the point was moot anyway. No, let’s wait until we’re out of college. Let’s wait until we’re out of grad school. Let’s wait until we’ve got our careers established. Let’s wait until we’ve built up a big nest egg. Let’s wait until we can sell this house and find a better one with more room. I once dated a 53-year-old man who still wasn’t “ready” to have kids.

So here I am, almost 30 and childless. Shouldn’t I get a medal or something, like, look how long I’ve gone without getting knocked up? Isn’t that amazing? No, it’s not amazing. It hurts. Many people I went to elementary school with now have babies of their own, and I’ve kind of secretly wondered, and envied, how they were able to have their kids without feeling bad about it. I’ve been invited to baby showers and wondered why people were celebrating their pregnancies, and why people often visit pregnant women in the hospital and bring balloons and congratulate them, and why some moms throw elaborate birthday parties for their kids. It’s as though some people are happy to be parents or something, and their friends and family are happy for them. Who gave them permission to be happy about it? Who changed the rules? Since when are people allowed to be happy about having kids?  Why was I not informed of this?
So amidst these very confusing cultural signals, I’ve spent the last decade and a half just working a lot. Working a bunch of different jobs, attempting lots of careers, some of which were tolerable but none of which I really fell in love with. I was a huge fan of anthropology, and I came here to grad school to study it, but frankly I’ve been utterly miserable since I got here last August. I hate grad school. Fucking hate it. Backwards and forwards, upwards and downwards, every which way, I hate everything about it. I hate my classes. I hate my schoolwork. Over the past couple months I'd become really, really depressed. And because I’ve basically tried almost every job there is to try before this, I decided I had a mental illness when it comes to choosing a career. So about a month ago, for the first time ever in my life, I saw a therapist.

It was a bit disconcerting going in there at first, because the receptionist handed me a long questionnaire asking whether I drink, do drugs, cut myself, have panic attacks, have eating disorders, want to hurt anyone, was sexually abused, etc., and I felt like maybe I was in the wrong place, because I was able to honestly check “no” to almost everything. I just wanted to talk to someone about why grad school was making me so sad all the time, and how I could fucking cheer up about it and get my ass in gear. I wanted someone to tell me how to focus better and how to manage my heavy-eyed boredom and crippling apathy towards school.

Fortunately, I was not assigned a Dr. Finch-like weirdo, but a really fantastic woman who we’ll call Carmen because, well, that’s her name. I explained to her that I should love school but hate it, that I should want a dazzling career but really have zero ambition, that I should be passionate about my schoolwork but find it nearly impossible to focus or even give a shit at all, and clearly I am losing my marbles because I’m so old and have been working for so long and still don’t have anything that remotely resembles a coherent career. In between our sessions, at which I took copious notes, she gave me little assignments to do, and which I did gladly because I was desperate. We were making some progress, until last week I came in with an embarrassing, shameful confession.

“I hate saying this," I began uncomfortably.  "But I really want to be a mom."

“Why do you hate saying that?” she asked, slightly puzzled.

I was shocked. Just completely blown away. WHY?? What did she mean, WHY??

I tried to explain, rather pathetically, that I should want a fancy career and a PhD, and wouldn’t it be a slap in the face to the early feminists who worked so hard to give women the economic opportunities they have today? I’m supposed to want a position of power and a seaside mansion in Malibu. I’m supposed to want a tanned, trim, toned body and designer clothes, not a screaming baby at my swollen breast and a toddler running around breaking stuff and leaving sticky fingerprints everywhere. Isn’t it crazy that I'd happily turn down the former for the latter? Don’t I need a lobotomy or something?

“It’s perfectly natural to want to be a mom,” she said.

I had come prepared with a long list of justifications and rationalizations about why I want children, but I didn’t have to justify what I said at all. And that turned my entire brain upside down in my skull. It’s...okay to want kids? It’s okay to want kids!  Wow!  Hallelujah!

But what about overpopulation? Shouldn’t I feel guilty for wanting to reproduce when there are already millions of unwanted children in this world? Carmen said that if you raise good people with good values—that is, children who care about the world around them—you just might be the mother, or the grandmother, or the great-grandmother, of the person who invents a really dramatic way to change the world for the better. The people who should be multiplying are the people who value service to humanity and the alleviation of suffering, so that they pass on those values to their children.

She also reminded me that denying yourself an experience that you badly, badly want to have doesn’t make you more productive or useful to society. It only demoralizes you and makes you depressed and cynical. And motherhood—raising good people with good values—counts as a calling, and so does not-for-profit service work. Your calling might not make you a lot of money, unlike how so many career books promise, but it still counts as a calling.

So my fear of other moms is over and I’m back to planning on being a mom someday soon, and I'm happy again. I'm allowed to want children, and I’m going to celebrate it, and I don’t care if no one else celebrates with me, goddammit. (Hmm...maybe I should ease up on the swearing?)

And I’m happy to say that I’m now at peace with the fact that I don’t have a career, and I don’t really want one, and that as long as I’m paying the bills, I don’t really care. My calling probably won’t be found out there in the capitalist free market, but rather with raising a little person who who might accompany me on community building exercises or humanitarian trips, and who might grow into a big person and do something good in the world.

I end this with two links. One for women who can’t find decent men and therefore choose to be single moms: http://www.singlemothersbychoice.org/ And one for a sperm bank search database:

Truly, I can’t tell you how liberating it is to have permission to let go of the things you’re supposed to want and instead go after the things you actually want, even if it freaks some people out and they tsk-tsk you. “The great thing about your thirties is that you find your voice," Carmen said.

In that case, bring on the 30s!