Saturday night, we had dinner with a couple I've never met before. They are co-workers of my husband's, meaning they are both highly educated scientists, meaning I would be completely and totally outnumbered by PhDs.
I go into these dinners knowing full well that I will be lost several times in the midst of the conversation; I accept this. My husband is supportive and does all he can to ease my discomfort. I remind myself that I'm happy with what I've done with my life so far, and that no matter how many degrees they have, I am not inferior.
But I do still have to remind myself of this, every time.
This couple was very nice, friendly, warm and they were interested and able to talk about a lot of things besides science. They asked me about myself and steered the conversation back to topics I could participate in when it turned inevitably to the science, gossip and acronyms of their workplace.
Then, after I mentioned that the girls start school next week, Z for full day kindergarten and E for three mornings a week, the husband asked me: "So, after taking five years off to raise your kids, are you happy with that decision?"
I paused, blinked a few times and said, "Well, that's the $25,000 question now isn't it?" and we all laughed, me uncomfortably, while I silently begged for someone to change the subject.
I wish I had had the presence of mind to answer our dinner guest - a childless, highly esteemed scientist, who had no idea how prickily I would respond to his question - with a proud, confident, quick answer: "Yes, I am happy with the decision I made. And I can't wait to see what I do next."
Instead my ambivalence ruled and I went to bed with his question still ringing in my head. Have I taken "five years off"? Off of what? How many more years will I "take off"? Am I happy with this decision?
When I woke up, I read the Lives column of today's Sunday New York Times, which is tied with the Modern Love column as my biggest NYT obsession, and this quote jumped out at me. "She even threw Carl Yung at me: 'Nothing has a stronger influence.... on their children than the unlived lives of their parents."
I believe that many parents, perhaps all, have "unlived lives", the shadow hopes and identities and plans that are repressed or simply set aside as the pressures and obligations of parenthood take over. That this happens seems a natural component of parenthood, moms and dads, employed and staying at home. Perhaps it is even an inevitable part of growing up, whether you become parent or chose childlessness.
The danger for SAHMs seems deeper to me, though maybe this is just because it's where I am, right now. Those of us who chose to - or must - spend our time at home for large portions of our kids' childhoods run the risk of investing ourselves so deeply in our children that we cannot see past them. Or we interrupt our own job development and momentum at a time when others are just picking up steam in their self-discovery. We leave - or never enter- the world of outside work, where achievement and advancement are overt, measurable, and - in some segments of society - deeply valued above all else.
Among the many things I wish I had had the fortitude to tell our dinner guests, the first was that I have not really taken time off of anything. My dancing "career", which I really must put in quotes as I barely earned any money ever, was naturally coming to an end when I got pregnant, and all the various other ways I filled in my gaping financial gaps never really amounted to a "career" without quotes either. In the circles that he and my husband run in, most couples meet when they both are in graduate school, support each other through dissertation writing, and coordinate two job searches in the hope of arriving in the same general vicinity as one another as they juggle the demands of two high level academic positions.
That was not our story.
There is little question that my "unlived life" is an intellectual one. When I decided, in my twenties, not to go to graduate school but instead to dance and wait tables and become a massage therapist and write grants and etc. etc. etc.... it was with the naive thought that I could always go to graduate school "later". But as open as life can seem to a twenty year old, it sure feels different to this almost forty year old. The daily choices that you make dig grooves, slowly, imperceptibly, until one day you wake up and realize that your groove is so deep you can't see out of it and that you haven't used your brain in any majorly intellectual way in so long you're pretty sure you can no longer count as high as the number of IQ points you have lost.
The thought of going back to graduate school at this point in my life seems impossible, for lots of reasons, the first of which is that I'm no longer sure what I would study in the first place. Perhaps it seems impossible because of where we live, far out from a major city. Or maybe it's due to the creep of middle-aged mental rigidity; the neurons that once held statistics and vocabulary and the square root of the hypotenuse surely have withered irreparably, that ship has clearly sailed. Drawing another ship into this harbor seems naive, a hazy daydream, to be quickly set aside as soon as the clothes dryer beeps.
Or maybe this is just the remnants of my depression, a habit of negative thinking that keeps me from experiencing joyful possibility.
I know this: I hold inside me an "unlived life', one about graduate school, the promise of in depth study of something that fascinates me, that I want to recover or discover or possibly take a good look at and finally, fully, put to rest.
Do you have an "unlived life"?