The other night, as I tucked my 7-year-old daughter into bed, she turned toward me and asked a question that pierced through the sweet hugs and kisses with a mixture of curiosity and accusation: “Ima, I know you’re working on a lot of different projects, but what are you going to BE?”
My daughter is perceptive beyond her years, and apparently I’m not very good at hiding my own struggles and questions about work and identity. I gave her what I thought was a reasonable response — truthful, while acknowledging the uncertainty she had sensed: “Well, I’m not going to be just one thing: I’m your mom, and I’m also a teacher, and a writer, and a historian…”
She didn’t buy it and, truthfully, neither did I. I felt more comfortable when I had a title that fit on a business card, and a business card to put it on.
But a year ago, I chose to leap into the unknown, away from a job I’d held for more than a decade. I had anticipated that no longer needing to report to anyone or show up in an office at prescribed times would usher in a period of relaxation and renewal. In actuality, I found the following months remarkably uncomfortable and disorienting. Without a firm professional identity and affiliation, I felt unmoored.
The feeling of unsettledness wasn’t new, but this was a more extreme and public manifestation. When I finished my doctorate, I stepped off the traditional academic career path and chose to work in public history. And when I had children, I began the all-too-familiar precarious balancing act of meaningful work and family life. I was lucky to be valued enough by my colleagues that I was able to create a flexible schedule and adapt it as my children’s needs changed. I remained devoted to my professional life, but I lowered the fire of my ambition to a simmer.
My questions about work and purpose simmered along as well, occasionally erupting into a full boil. But as the primary caregiver to young twins, I couldn’t fully engage with those questions. I would occasionally lift the cover off the pot, peer in and stir the contents a bit, and then close it and step away — sometimes with reluctance, other times with relief.
With small children, my focus shifted away from the larger world and inward to my family. This was not true for my husband, whose career ambitions were taking off just as I was reining mine in — a fact I noted with a tinge of resentment. I didn’t want to launch myself professionally at that moment, but I wished I felt as free to do so as he did. Although we made these decisions together, we both knew that we were influenced by gender norms larger than ourselves.
And so, I harnessed the nesting instinct and cultivated a life that was settled in one sense, creating a family rhythm that worked (at least most of the time). But the unfinished business of my professional identity continued to nag me. I was envious of friends who were able to ignore these questions, to put them firmly aside. I was not, but neither did I have the bandwidth to lean into my unsettledness and give the questions the attention they deserved.
For I had begun to realize that while unsettledness seems like an absence — of clarity, of purpose, of direction — it actually requires great presence, plus the willingness and energy to inhabit the uncomfortable space of questions. Our tradition gives us the powerful metaphor of wandering in the desert. The analogy works because unsettledness can feel like a wide open, threatening space, an extreme void, when you’re grasping for something to hold onto. Its emptiness is lonely and consuming. The desert analogy also reminds us that unsettledness is rarely fleeting, but rather takes time to move through, often in a meandering fashion, without signposts to guide us.
When I was finally able to embrace the unsettledness, the timing felt somewhat ironic. I had worked throughout the baby/toddler/preschool years, and I was leaving my job now that the children were in school. I joked that it was like taking maternity leave without having another baby, gestating my professional plans instead; at other moments, I ruefully noted that if it were possible for me to have another child, I would have been tempted to do so now, to replace the uncomfortable feelings of unsettledness with new life and its absorbing commitments. I would not be the first person to quiet the questions this way.
Over the past several months, I’ve begun to breathe a little easier, to settle into the rhythm of my unsettledness. I’ve stopped feeling the need to apologize for taking the time to reflect, to seek, and to experiment. I still have flare-ups of impatience, guilt, and self-criticism, but in the quiet of this desert, I can hear my own voice more clearly.
So when my daughter, the next night, offered a career solution — I should open a bakery so I could make yummy treats for her — I was able to quell the hint of rising panic and reassure her that I appreciated her help, but it would take me more time to figure this out.email print