Our unlived lives

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"?


Nik-Nak said...

I do not have an unlived life. I think this topic is relative in that it's what YOU make it and it is only suited for yourself. Who says that scientist that spent all those hours on studying and climbing ladders just to achieve something in his academic career/field is any more fulfilled than little ole me with my one college degree, cute southern husband, part-time job, and beautiful daughter?

I don't think being a SAHM means you are putting your life on hold for anyone. I think every life runs a different course and if they were all the same it would be a boring world.
I also think I'd steer away from dinners with anyone that made me question myself. I wouldn't have handled that situation as well as you did.

Hillary said...

Oh dear. Yes. Several. I discarded some of them as I got older because, upon reflection, I would have been spectacularly bad at them. (A foreign correspondent who is a nervous traveler? Um, probably not the best career choice.) But some linger in the background, these things I'll do in the elusive someday -- write a book, work for a nonprofit. I am in sort of the reverse of your situation though, in that I'm living one life I really wanted right now, but I see the point coming -- though I don't know when -- where I'm going to have to leave this life for .... what I don't know. I'm going to have to make a new life happen, and that's scary, too.

gramnmalouie said...

I also read that article and thought, Wow, what have I done to my children with my "unlived" life. Here's what I know: everyone has an unlived life -- even (or perhaps especially) people in high-profile jobs. Everyone!! It doesn't have to be a major life change; it could just be a hobby not yet pursued or a skill not yet honed. It could be many things.
So get over it or pursue it.
By the way, What Color is My Parachute has just been published in a special anniversary edition. Maybe we should all buy a copy for that next act of our lives. Those unfulfilled dreams await all of us. CBHM, remember I went back to graduate school at age 47 and graduated the month I turned 50. And that is not old by today's standards in many graduate schools. Those "old" brain cells do have a way of opening up and doing well. They really do.
Oh, and I am not finished yet. That comment from the childless husband just says to me that he has NO CLUE what challenges are involved when a bright, intelligent woman elects to be a stay-at-home mom. Not a clue in the world. Scientists aren't smart about everything, you know.

grammalouie said...

Oh, and one more thing!
Taking "time off" to raise children is a concept common to many professions because when a person resumes that profession (be it medicine, or law or science or accounting or whatever) the profession has marched forward with changes and progressions that can often leave the returnee lost and off course thus making re-entering more difficult. It's not as though you can hope right back in where you left off. Not going to happen. This might be my final thought but, I tell you this is resonating all over the place with me (can you tell?!)

Swistle said...

I think your light answer was the best possible one to a question asked casually. It sounds like his intentions were good: finding a topic he thought you'd be interested in; trying to learn more about you and your opinions; acknowledging that for many parents (even if it wasn't so in your case), raising children does involve a career-damaging gap. I think you could also have answered him honestly that yes, you were happy with it, it had been a great experience. I'd use the same tone I'd use if someone asked me if I was glad I'd taken any other job.

Gina said...

I intensely dislike the phrase "time off". In my opinion, it is "time different". The time I have spent on maternity leave and the days I have with my kids (I stay at home with them 2 days during the "work" week) are some of the most engaging and present days of my life.

We ALL have unlived lives - when I was seven I thought I would be a ballerina, astronaut, and a paleontologist among other things - and although I do still like to dance, I am clearly none of those things. I have tried to find ways to incorporate what I want to be and do in my present life. My husband, a chemist with a Caltech PhD, sometimes wishes he was a carpenter or an engineer or a baseball scout or even a stay-at-home dad. I think that one of the great "secrets" of life that I have realized over the past few years is that I don't have to be defined by any one thing that I have done or currently do. I am not stuck where I am now if I don't want to be.

And for what it is worth, I have a B.S. in planetary science from Caltech and an M.S. from USC is Systems Architechting & Engineering and I still sometimes get VERY uncomfortable at science PhD-type gatherings. I am almost always asked why I didn't pursue a PhD (I actually started one and then quit - the horror!)and why I choose to work part-time and stay home with my kids. It is just a world view that is hard for people in academia to wrap their heads around.

Michelle said...

Thank you for writing this and helping me solidify the thoughts swirling in my head right now.

The husband and I are making some big life changes right now. He just accepted a job about an hour away from where me live. I eventually want to go there as well so that we can relocate our family to a better place with more opportunity for the girls.

To do all of this, it means I might have to take a step back in my career. I'm on a good career path where I am right now. But when it comes down to it, the only one really benefitting from this in our family is me. Sure we benefit from my income but I could get paid the same or more if I move with the husband.

So. Yes, I do believe I have a life unlived. I have come to terms with it though and I'm OK with it.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Nik-Nak- I envy your confidence and clarity. I don't think being a SAHM means putting your life on hold, but as a major decision of adulthood, it clearly restricts many possibilities of what might have been.
Hillary- A "foreign correspondent who's a nervous traveller" = HAHA!
grammalouie (aka MOM)- You are my model for how to have many lives, your path reminds me that anything is possible. And I guess I'll have to read that damn parachute book again....
Swistle- I agree- he was asking a light, friendly question and there was no need for me to launch into some in depth discussion of the status of SAHM in America or something. But I was so surprised by my own reaction, why had this simple, friendly question caused me such conflict?
Gina- YES. Looking back on it, the "taking time off" is the problem phrase, isn't it? Again, he didn't mean anything by it, and honestly, there's no perfect way to ask me that question that doesn't run the risk of offending my currently over-sensitive sensibilities.
And for your last paragraph, the one that I've reread several times just for the comfort it gives me? I could kiss you for it. Truly.
Michelle- Oh girl. I can't wait to read about your journey. Good luck.

Pamela said...

I hate those questions from PhDs!!! I always want to retort: "So how do you feel about your choice to give up 5 years of your life for a PhD?" But I never have the balls.

I don't know. I feel like being a SAHM has cracked me wide open and has given me my unlived life. I feel so grateful.

But it comes at a price. Everything does. Ultimately, we are never too old for anything. My mom got her degree when she was 50 and went on to found and direct a non-profit.

Your writing is so good. I think you may already be living one of your unlived lives .... xoxo

Anonymous said...

I sometimes feel so vulnerable about my decision to stay home with my kids. I have a five and three year old and I have been a full-time SAHM for four years. I actually started a MA in Library and Information Sciences when my daughter was two and just finished last Christmas. It was a lot of work and the end was a huge push, but I found that I liked having something else to think about. It was 90% online so I was able to do the work late at night or during naps. I am not saying that you have to go back to school, just that it is possible and that there are some good things about it. I was terrified too about not remembering how to write a paper, but it did come back to me.

KG said...

Back in college I read "Composing a Life," by Mary Catherine Bateson (may have even bought it w/you in Harvard Square!). Now, the five women profiled in this book have LOTS of professional accomplishments, but Bateson highlights that all of them also have "faced discontinuity and divided energy."

If I remember correctly, Bateson argues that this is a special issue for women in our culture, who continue to be primary caregivers of our children. Her point is that composing our lives is a creative and wide-ranging endeavor.

It is Improvisational (please see: http://cluelessbuthopeful.blogspot.com/2011/07/improvisation.html) and as we engage with that, it enriches our lives!

Professorial types are among the only people in the world who still have the option of a one track, monolithic idea of professional (and personal) growth: college, grad school, one or two jobs before finding tenure and then calcifying in the same place and job 'til you die! That is just not happening in ANY other field these days. So the idea that you took time"off"... from what? From living in alignment with your highest values? From contributing to our culture in deep and important ways? I do think his question was asked lightly, and in a lovely attempt to get to know you... AND it seems to me it might reveal an old fashioned and sexist mindset that values the masculine, academic, monolithic career path.

Boy, am I in trouble now.

twisterfish said...

Go Nik-Nak and Gina! Beautifully said!

I do NOT have an unlived life. I've been a SAHM for almost 19 years and in that time have created and taught and shaped three amazing children, who, when the time is right, will have the confidence and strength to go live their lives and potentially change the world.... Can every scientist claim to have done as much in that time frame? Okay, maybe if one of them cured cancer we could argue about it, but until then....

Now my husband on the other hand, his is a very unlived life and he has not done anything to change that. He is not in a job he enjoys, yet has worked in it for decades, unhappily and unfulfilled. Does that mean his education was a mistake or that his job is a bad one? No way, it just means he didn't do something about it when he realized he took the wrong path. When your life is unlived, it doesn't matter if you're a SAHM, a computer specialist, a waitress, or even a scientist. I wish that everyone who feels unfulfilled would have the courage and support to get off the path they're on and try another one.

p.s. My oldest son is considering becoming a scientist as we speak. I'll warn him to come up with better dinner table conversation starters to save for his future use!

Jessica Berger Gross said...

Love this post. I have several unlived lives that I think about often -- school teacher, or money maker, SAHM of many kids, writer who works at it all day every day, actor, farmer. I also know academics who have "unlived lives" --

clueless but hopeful mama said...

I'm so fascinated by all your comments!

KG- You are so far from in trouble with me! Kisses to you for your awesome comments!

I have a hard time understanding people who don't feel they have an "unlived life" anywhere in side them. It sort of like how I feel when people tell me they've never felt the need for therapy. I think it just speaks my deep and abiding belief that we're all neurotic in some way, whether we know it or not.

Rebecca said...

I would have had a very visceral response to a question such as that, mostly because the words (if not the intent behind them) suggest that being a SAHM is somehow "less" than anything else you could have chosen to do with that time in your life. I mean, really, how often does anyone ask a brand new PhD recipient whether it was "worth it?"

I suspect that this man has no clue what goes into being a SAHM, and as his wife does not, either, she could not kick him under the table. :)

I'm curious. Does your husband see your "job" as equally important in your family as his? When my son was first born, my husband had a knee-jerk reaction that his work was WORK and my work was "work." He didn't even realize that he had that bias until I pointed it out to him. It was subtle, but it was there. His understanding has definitely changed over the intervening years, and he now sees them as equal. This factor makes a huge difference in how comfortable I feel in my "job." Employees are most often happen in their work environments when they feel respected and appreciated by their bosses. Although I am NOT my husband's employee (more like my son's!), his respect matters in how fulfilled I feel by my work.

As a former attorney and former Soldier, I can unequivocally say that I do not have any regrets about giving all that up to stay home with my son. But that's me. I had a chance to do a lot of the things I wanted to do before kids: live overseas, travel, get degrees. What I wanted to do, I did. Now...I'm still doing what I want to do. I do, however, look forward to the time when the kid(s) move out and my husband and I can be all about US again, rather than having to be all about the kid.

Ann Wyse said...

Sheez, I think we could form a support group for scientists and their loved ones.

As others have said, I've also noticed that my husband and many of his colleagues are very good at blunt questions and very bad at tact and diplomacy and general people skills. It helps me to think of them as 3 year olds.

I actually believe we all have many unlived lives. And in many cases - thank goodness! - some of us wouldn't be able to take the pressures of parenthood and should, perhaps, stick to science.

grammalouie said...

Hi - me again. Just wanted to echo what KG said about Composing a Life. I recommend that book unequivocally. Right now, I am reading her latest book, Composing a Further Life. That's where I am now, in the last third of my life. Enlightening. It helps to know there are others working through the same issues.

Aunt Bobbie said...

I think you were overly polite to your dinner partner. I think I would have questioned his use of the words "taking time out." I agree with the others here who suggest he hasn't a clue about child raising. It seems to me, my darling niece, you are an intensely hands on mother with beautiful values, great wisdom about your little ones, and endless patience. I have seen you in action! Obviously, that man's comment was all about HIM, not you.
And I have to say my life has been composed, re-composed, decomposed and will continue to morph into more and different forms as I continue my journey. It's called GROWTH. It takes many forms, whether buying a new house, pursuing an MFA in creative writing and exploring a new relationship. I am a very alive, sixty-six year old, thank you very much. You believe you are in the trenches now, but you will be amazed at how you regenerate and reconfigure as your children grow. You will find many new, creative solutions for your life, because that is what you are: ingenious and creative!

momof3 said...

This post couldn't have come at a more appropriate time for me in my unlived life. I haven't had any regrets choosing to stay home with my children. I have truly enjoyed this time watching them grow and evolve. I have enjoyed our after school talks and look forward to many more. However, I do wonder if I should have maintained an income in order to provide more opportunities for them. This has recently been brought to the forefront by my oldest when she wishes to travel. If I continued working we probably could have traveled more and been able to send her to every camp she wanted to attend but I didn't think it was worth the price. I now find myself doubting this. This, too, could be part of my depression coming out or the inferiority I sometimes feel.

Sarah said...

I think I have about ten unlived lives. But, I think everyone does. It doesn't mean I'm sad or unfulfilled, but are there roads I didn't go down that I'm now curious about? Of course. I'm like you; I don't really understand how it could be otherwise.

miyoko said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Gramnmalouie EVERYONE has unlived lives. People with PHDs, parents, non-parents, astronauts, presidents, CEO's, SAHMs, EVERYONE. Part of being human and part of making choices and decisions. With every choice there is another side of a coin. Another option that gets denied. Grass that is greener or browner. I think even before I had kids I always have had WAY too many unlived lives swimming around in my head which always made me swirl, but i've had that going on forever.

For much of the world, becoming a SAHM is not an affordable option, and not an option they can take because of where they are in their career. Some people just assume it's a temporary thing because of the economic sacrifice and often career sacrifice it involves thus the 'time off' tag.

I am often asked about the time off thing, and i don't see myself as taking "time off" but just 5 years so far of not bringing in an income in the form of dollars. Also not sitting at a desk with daily interaction with the same adults. I still work my butt off, but i get paid in healthy child growth, smiles, hugs, and "mama"s and also still have the work challenges like, endless diapers, potty training, battling childhood fears, ER visits, household maintenance, etc which replace prepping power point presentations, management, getting projects done well, coaching unmotivated team members, project crunches, keeping up on software knowledge, maintaining personal motivation and job fulfillment, etc.

Yes when both are in school it will be on to the next chapter. Not thinking about it too much right now, but ideas percolate in the back of my mind. A clean slate with my collection of (VERY) random skills and experiences to create some kind of brand new adventure.

now i must go because i have a 2 yr old laying across me pinching my face screaming "I'm hungry!!!!" and tapping on my laptop

Cortney said...

I don't know if I have any more to add to these great comments other than to echo the sentiments already here: I believe everyone has an unlived life. For certain. Some people maybe aren't checked in to the things that they're missing?

I do struggle with the "taking time off" thing a lot though. Since I really did leave a career that involved a ton of school (that I'm still paying off). So things feel unfinished for me, in limbo, "on hold". I don't know if I'll return to that career or pursue something else. Uncertainty certainly is uncomfortable.

PS. I love your mom. She sounds so great. :)

Blog Designed by: NW Designs