Friday, April 20, 2012

When I grow up

Sorry about that lean month there. I started 5 or 6 blog entries, but none of them quite came together. I guess I was waiting to have something more real to say.

 So here's real. I’m thirty-eight and I have no earthly clue what I want to be when I grow up. I always wanted to be a novelist. From as far back as I can remember, writing was my passion. I was an English major in college, and had grand plans of writing… no, not the great American novel… but maybe some great American smut. In college, I needed a job, and I found one working as a research assistant in a Psychology lab. It was interesting work, research on alcoholism and marriage. I mainly did grunt work, translating “a case of beer” or “half a bottle of vodka” into standard drink units (24 and 8.5 standard drinks, respectively). I did data entry. I filed questionnaires. I learned some rudimentary statistics and sat in meetings and listened and learned.

 My college boyfriend was a musician, so as things started to get serious, I started thinking about careers more practical than writing. You know, the kind of careers that come with health insurance and a paycheck. I figured one of the two of us might need those things if we were going to make a go of it. I added Psychology as a second major. My bosses in the Psychology lab assumed I would go to grad school, so I applied to a bunch of schools. I got into Stanford. There was no soul searching involved. Grad school was just the next thing you do if you’re doing Psychology research. So that’s what I did.

 A few years in, I started questioning whether Psychology research was the career for me. I was no longer dating a musician. I was living in Silicon Valley in the dot-com boom. People were dropping out of grad school to join start-ups. Google was hiring. Ebay. Friends were becoming millionaires (on paper). It was very tempting. But other friends convinced me to stay. I was 24, and three years into a five-year PhD program. “You’re almost done!” they lied. I stayed.

 Seven years it took me to get my PhD. I also left Stanford with a Masters in Statistics. Why? I don’t know. Because I am a procrastinator, and time spent in Stats classes was time I didn’t have to think about the glacial pace of my dissertation research. Because numbers were a problem I could solve, unlike the amorphous and slippery “finish your dissertation.” Because I still lacked direction, and Stats seemed practical. I was 28, armed with a PhD and two Masters degrees from one of the top universities in the world.

 No damn clue. None.

 I married my husband less than a week after turning in my dissertation, and fell into a job as a Statistics consultant in the department where he worked at Stanford. I cranked out numbers for a bunch of radiologists, and became an expert in some very specific branches of statistics used by people in that field. I helped write NIH grants and co-authored papers on important things like detecting cancer and heart disease. There wasn’t really anywhere to go in that job. But it was a good job. It had flexible hours, paid very well, and I could do it easily. I put some money into a 403b. I learned to belly dance. I did lots of TaKeTiNa and meditation. I went to Burning Man.

 No clue.

 My husband applied for a job at Johns Hopkins and got it. We moved to Maryland. I continued to telecommute and do my old job at Stanford while they looked for my replacement. I was 32. They found a replacement for me eventually, and by then, we were trying to get pregnant. I did some freelance consulting with a couple of autism researchers—statistics, writing, editing, whatever they needed—because it felt dishonest to look for a “real job” when I knew I’d be leaving to have and stay home with a baby. I wrote half a novel, and filed the paperwork for a jewelry design business. I went into a three-year training to learn to lead TaKeTiNa workshops. And then, at 34, I got pregnant with twins.

 When they were born, for the first time, I knew what I was supposed to be. I was meant to be a mom. That role clicked into a place inside me that I would never have predicted. I was never a baby person. I had thought I wanted “one or none.” But those two little people came into my life and filled in spaces in my heart I didn’t know existed. I didn’t and don’t love the mommy job every minute of every day, but overall I have loved the full-time job of caring for them, teaching them, nourishing them. Best gig ever. Shitty pay. Shitty hours. No sick leave. But still, best gig ever. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the luxury of staying home with them for these years.

 But see, they’re turning five this summer. They’re starting kindergarten in the fall. Five full days a week. It’s kind of time for that whole paycheck, retirement savings, paying down debt thing to start happening. Maybe time for me to wear something other than jeans on the bottom half of my body. And maybe, you know, time to start showering more often. And, like, start wearing actual shoes.

God, it sounds awful.

 So what happens now? I have been out of the job market completely for five years, and out of it in any serious way for even longer. I (perhaps naively) think I could probably find a job of some kind. But… but this feels like a clean slate. If there’s a time to make a career change, this is it! So great, let’s do that! Except that I never did the work to figure out what I wanted to be. I just went with the flow, did the next thing, went to school a lot, found work that seemed reasonable, and made some babies. I still don’t know what I want to be, do, accomplish.

 I’m almost f**king forty. When did that happen? HOW did that happen? I was in college five minutes ago. Where did seventeen years of my life go? Well, seven in grad school plus four as a statistician plus two as a consultant plus five as a stay-at-home mama. Crap, that’s 18. Faulty math. Damn, I really AM rusty. Maybe I’m 39? No, I’m pretty sure I’m 38. Plus or minus one. Whatever. Old. Old to not know. Old to be thinking about careers that start with unpaid internships. Old to be wondering about the colors of parachutes and making lists of experiences that have made me feel competent and joyful. Old to be this clueless, this uncertain, this scared.

 I don’t know how to end this entry, which is maybe why it’s so long. I can’t wrap this up in a neat bow with a joke or a witty tie-back to the first paragraph. It’s raw, and real, and scary. I’m between trapeze bars, and I have no idea what’s next.


  1. Right there with you! I didn't spend the 7 years getting my PhD, but I did struggle through working full time (and coaching) while getting my Masters and I have NO IDEA what I REALLY want to be when I grow up either at this point... Hopefully we can figure it out. It might be "easy" to fall back on what we know, but I'm not so sure that is what I want to do either...

  2. Pam, I think you're doing it! I think this is your "grown up" job. Writing. Now may be a good time to start looking for ways to turn your "hobby" and talent, what you love doing, into a career. Look for creative ways to turn your writing into a pay check plus retirement. The web might be a good place to look. Lots of sites that offer pay per hit for all kinds of assays. Don't be stopped by fear. Enjoy the quest. Get excited about the possibilities, and the universe will provide the answers. At least that was the case for me. It might make you feel better to know that I'm turning 50 this year (it's not a typo). I have a Ph.D. in neuro-pharmacology. I worked at Hopkins for 6 years and was torn the entire time between wanting to spend more time with my family, and not spending enough time on my research. I now manage a rain-gutter business with my husband. It's been temporary for almost 10 years. It allows me to spend the time with my family that I wanted. It's seasonal, so in the off season we get to play a lot. And it pays the bills. A waist of my degree? Maybe. I had fun while I earned it, though. And I'm definitely having fun now. Love your life. That's my motto. Ask yourself not what I want to do when I grow up, but what do I want to add to my life, so I will love my life.

  3. loved....every....word..thank you