On the day I got my final grad school rejection letter, I sat on the floor playing blocks with a blond curly-headed two year old, while listening to her mother in the other room coach her grad student on how women must be empowered in their work.
I was just the nanny who graduated from college with Honors, but wasn’t good enough for a “real job.”
Someone else might have blamed my dead-end job résumé on the fact that I graduated into the beginning of the “Great Recession” or had a series of crazy bosses. Instead, I woke up everyday harshly blaming myself for every rejection letter, no response or failed interview.
Why wasn’t I doing more? Being more proactive? Why couldn’t I be more clear on what I want to do, or at least just pick some field and stick with it for more than a year? I was obsessed with achieving “success.”
I tried to get into my chosen environmental field from every angle. I combed Craigslist, daily checked the employment listing of many different companies, and sent in an application to anything that seemed slightly good, whether it paid or not.
And then, I would burn out on rejection and take whatever I could get; boat detailing, organic fast food cashier or nannying. Then, when I couldn’t stand that job another day, I would quit and attempt the vague career track again until my money ran out.
This lasted for five years. In the months building up to that day sitting on the floor, I had been trying to do it all; working forty hours a week as a nanny to pay for my intense and fascinating evening classes in wetland science, while applying to restoration ecology graduate programs.
I went home that day and cried myself into insomnia and panic, but I didn’t stop. I hit rock bottom and kept chiseling at the stone beneath me (otherwise known as my health and sanity).
Finally, the grace of the universe and my boyfriend, James, stopped my chiseling. My job and classes ended in the same week, and James refused to let me pay the bills any longer. I suddenly had no obligations and my only task was to take care of myself. Something I sucked at!
I realized I had learned to define “success” as achieving “normal.” In my mind that meant fifty hours a week, business casual dress, health benefits, extra money… having the normal American lifestyle my logical “normal” dad might recognize. I wasn’t just rejecting the alternative way I grew up with my mum; I was neglecting myself.
Maya Angelou said it wisely: “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
It took three months to admit that time off was a good idea and to begin to let myself make decisions based on what I actually wanted. Even the seemingly unimportant decisions were hard for me. I used to let that voice in my head tell me I wasn’t a “normal woman” because I don’t actually like chocolate that much. Now I let myself choose salted caramel every time instead!
Everyday I felt confused, overwhelmed and exhausted. I had so many questions! What actually is meaningful work? How do you find it? What does it really mean to be true to myself as a woman? What the hell am I doing?
It took another six months of staring at the wall, hiking, meditation and therapy to regain my ability to sleep well, but the greatest healing and clarity came when I turned to the “Aunties.” Hearing their wisdom of experience, their own hardships and how they made decisions, as well as their complete acceptance of my process, allowed me to trust myself and my life.
I am still learning how to take care of myself but I believe in my choices again. I also know I am not alone in my experience. That is exactly why I want to share my story and the amazing Auntie’s stories on this blog. Perhaps they can be of benefit to you as well.