Once more I find myself at a sort of philosophical crossroads. I come here often. Perhaps I engage in too much thinking and not enough doing. But, as proven by how I voluntarily dedicated my college career to hours and hours of reading and overthinking literature, thinking is my favorite kind of doing.
What triggered this particular trip to the Overthinking Crossroads is an email from the mother of my one and only piano student (unless you count Emma and Ryan). Her son just isn't enjoying it at all; it's a huge pain to get him to practice, and he's going to have to take a break. I wished them well and said I'd welcome him back any time. Meanwhile, I'm spiraling into existential gloom. Since I started teaching four or so years ago, I've had two or three students, but I always sort of assumed that once the momentum got going, I'd get more. Instead, some have moved away, some have changed teachers, and one - my lovely adult student of three years - got a new obligation making her too busy for lessons. I thought it would change this fall when a piano teacher friend was moving away and offered to refer some of her students to me. I had five or six contact me and come for a trial lesson. None of them got back to me.
It's kind of hard not to assume there was something decidedly undazzling about my teaching.
I originally planned to be an English teacher. It was a crowded program at my college, so you had to send in an application package, including a video of a pretend lesson. When I applied, they informed me that the video concerned them, since I didn't seem to have much of a "presence" and they feared I wouldn't be able to maintain control of a classroom. It's possible that, as my last name was at the end of the alphabet, they didn't have any more slots when they got to me and had to think of some excuse for rejecting me. I mean, isn't it the whole purpose of such a program to teach its students how to teach, how to have a presence, how to maintain control of a classroom? All I knew, however, was that I had been measured and found wanting in my intended profession.
I toyed with the idea of going into library science for a graduate program, as working among the quiet shelves of a library seemed ideal for a mousy person with no presence. But after I received my regular old English degree, I just didn't feel a burning need to pursue any further education right then.
I had my children. I became, as they call it, a full-time mother. Though let's be honest: there's no such thing as a part-time mother. These are the sort of labels they use to sort everybody into tidy boxes so we know who's a Good mother and who's not...or who's fulfilled and who's repressed....or who's Like Me and Not Like Me. Blah. It was during my early days of stay-at-home motherhood, interestingly, that I became more and more engaged by the concepts of feminism, at least the sort of feminism that speaks to me. Because even though I was doing what I had chosen, and was very happy to do it, I still wished there were more resources to navigate the rocky transition from full-time student to...well, I know I need to take care of my baby, and that's my number one priority, but honestly it doesn't take up every minute of every hour, and what else should I do with my time that's worthy and fulfilling and useful, and how do I stay sane without much human contact beyond a gurgling infant, and am I selfish or selfless or some nebulous space in between? The specific details of my situation have shifted over the years - Luke being autistic, kids starting school, moving to bigger houses - but I still have that basic struggle, trying to navigate a place that no one's ever really mapped out.
I'm still not sure what I should do with myself.
The fact that I have a choice in the matter is, I know, a tremendous luxury. There are so many women who have no spare time to worry about the meaning of their day-to-day existence, because they're fully occupied with working long, lousy jobs to scrape together just enough money for necessities, worrying how they'll feed their children or keep a roof over their head...I know, I'm a place of privilege to even be pondering these things.
Having said that, here's my conundrum. As far as I can see, there are several motivators that get us to do things. One of them is necessity. I don't wash the dishes because I enjoy it; I do it because we need clean dishes. Work is a big part of this category, since, as most of us can't make, grow or build the entirety of our clothing, food, shelter and other needs, we have to earn money for them.
Another motivator is enjoyment. Hobbies go here, though people generally like to find work that at least sometimes falls in this category as well. If you have to do something to earn money, you might as well look for something you can enjoy too, right?
And then there's a vague "good for you" motivator. More on that in a moment.
So, what do I do by necessity? Housework, as mentioned above. I enjoy having a clean house but that doesn't mean I have much delight in the process. Caring for my children, obviously, though when they're at school there's not much to be done there. Earning a wage? I was bringing in a tiny fraction of our income with that piano lesson, but now...nope. Could we use the extra money? Of course we could. My husband's a schoolteacher. We bought pretty much the cheapest house we could move into, because anything bigger would have required a dual income. But we're getting by with just one. Barely.
Enjoyment. I have quite a few hobbies, and I feel plenty lucky that I have time to indulge in them. I might have lost all my piano students except my own kids, but I play the piano for myself all the time. I knit (working on my Halloween costume right now, as it happens). And yes, I do sometimes just watch TV shows and movies. Most of all, I write. Every day I spend at least an hour on something involving my writing.
But this leaves the "good for you." What do I mean by that? Well...
How do you measure your worth? Ideally, it should be absolute as a human being. And, as I believe, a child of God. Nothing you do or don't do should alter that sense of absolute worth. And yet I do judge myself as more or less worthy based on rather arbitrary criteria. One of those is by my career, or rather, my non-existent one. I don't make any money. I don't contribute a penny to our household. Sure, neither do my children, but they're children. Much as I try to silence this internal criticism, the voice keeps reminding me, You're basically a leech. No one has ever accused me of this. It's all self-directed. My husband is completely and utterly supportive of whatever I choose, as long as our family remains our priority. It's just my own issues.
And I think rather drearily, well, I don't have tons of options when it comes to making money. Last time I looked for a job, I ended up working at a register at a grocery store. For one miserable year. I was never happier when I quit. And that was when I got my first piano student, so everything seemed like it was working out great. But basing my worthiness on whether I'm earning any money is stupid and a fantastic way to set myself up for failure. I mean, we need to have an income, obviously. It's necessary, but it's not related to my worth.
So maybe it's not about the money; maybe it's about feeling like I'm contributing some good to the world. Volunteering? Getting involved at my kids' schools? This is the "good for you" stuff I'm talking about. Something that provides human contact for my hermit-like existence. Something that has me feeling purposeful and useful. Something that builds my character by stretching me beyond my comfort zone and teaching me new skills.
And here's the thing: that sounds like a perfect nightmare to me.
I like spending the day at home. Alone.
I feel like I shouldn't. I feel like I should be itching to get out and be around people. I feel like I should be longing for a career path, something to define my adult life beyond motherhood; something that makes use of my talents and desires and...ugh, it just sounds exhausting. I don't want it. I believe in fiercely defending the right of any other woman to pursue her dreams and excel in whatever her chosen field, but climbing the corporate ladder or working in a courtroom or leading meetings all day? Not for me.
Lots of guilt here. Am I happily squandering my abilities? I'm no genius, but I'm pretty smart, a hard worker, got good grades throughout high school and college. I don't feel my education was wasted from an abstract standpoint; I like the person it helped me become. But we like to categorize things by their cost - education is expensive, so why am I not using it to make more money? Or at least contribute to the world at large in some measurable way?
Oh, I know motherhood is my big contribution. I'm not diminishing the importance of that in the slightest. I'm glad that I'm available at home if they ever need me during the school day. I know that the time I've put and continue to put into raising them and providing a safe, clean happy home for them is invaluable. It's just...if I have this much free time now, how much more when they're grown and independent, at least Emma and Ryan? Lots of mothers find themselves seeking new careers, or renewing old ones once their children leave home. What do I want?
I know the ideal answer - I want to write novels, and have them published. Day-to-day, I would work from home, quiet and alone and happy. Once in a while I'd go on book signings or whatever, and get some amount of human contact and travel and all that good fun stuff, hopefully just enough to add a little variety to my life without making me miserable. But there is absolutely no way to guarantee that kind of career. And everything else....I don't want it. Even non-fiction freelance writing, or editing, other stuff people have recommended that really should be right up my alley...I've considered pursuing it, but it just doesn't feel right.
I know, I know. I'm really spoiled here. I can sit here, unemployed, and just summarily reject option after option of viable jobs. But every time I consider something, I think, well, what's the motivator? Do we need the income? Yes, but not so urgently I have to take it. Is it something I would enjoy? No. In fact, I'd probably be miserable. Is it good for me? Yech. Like medicine.
So I'd be perfectly happy going on with my simplistic home life, except for the crippling guilt telling me I shouldn't be happy, how dare I enjoy anything so bereft of monetary worth or real value, and what did I go to college for, anyway?
Apparently, for the sole purpose of writing overlong navel-gazing blog posts. Sigh.