From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I knew in the depths of my heart that I would leave my job. I didn’t tell anyone or say it out loud (other than the occasional wonderance about an unknown down-the-road future), but it had already settled somewhere inside.
There’s this thing I do, I’ve noticed recently. In response to certain small talk questions I respond without giving it much thought: a light remark that maybe feels nice to say, but which, with repetition, evolves into a story I find myself telling, which, over time, becomes my story, a truth. For example, when I graduated from uni, social work degree in hand, I had been telling people for months that I would move to the UK to work and travel for awhile. Initially I didn’t think much about it – it was a whim without committment, a nice idea. The more often I said it, the more it seemed to be The Plan – without me really reflecting on whether it was something I truly wanted to do. And at some point the telling of the story felt like a commitment, and I found myself planning and soon standing on Scottish shores.
Maybe it’s a way of jumping in the deep end with eyes shut and fingers crossed. But whenever this happens – and I’ve noticed that it DOES happen, often – there’s a point when I’m about to be in it when I think, wait: is this what I really want? Or is this just a story I’ve been telling? But then I tell myself that the thought came from somewhere and it must be my gut, so go with it.
My job was a dream and a doozy. Ten years of crisis shelter work with women, most of that time coordinating the shelter’s direct service work, supervising staff and supporting clients. It was exciting, frustrating, depleting, and invigorating. Some days I left feeling like I made a wee difference in the world. Others, I would cry in my office and drink too much wine when I got home. I would often think, my job is to care about people. My job is to love. What an honour and a burden.
I always said I would stay until I had a family. A colleague once told me that her way of managing the stress of home and work was to imagine that she had 100 emotional units everyday. If she spent 70 at work, she only had 30 for home, and that’s how she kept herself in check. I regularly spent 85 of those units before heading home. Before I had a family – before that was anywhere on the horizon – I figured that when it did happen I wouldn’t be able to do both well without some expense to one or the other or my sanity, and that that would be the time to leave the job. But that was the whim – it probably had as much to do with the fact that I hate change and couldn’t really imagine leaving without A Good Reason, although I knew I had to at some point – and when people would ask, it seemed like a sensible – and far off – deadline.
So when it happened, I already knew that I wouldn’t return after mat leave – but wasn’t ready to commit to that until 6 months in and after some tearful and long conversations at home about money and priorities and sanity. At that point, I couldn’t imagine leaving the Bean. Handing her over to someone else – a stranger – and walking away for eight hours? My rational brain shut down at the thought and the tears started.
We reorganized our budget, we shuffled numbers. We considered things this way and that. I contemplated growing more of our vegetables and I cancelled my online yoga subscription and stopped contributing to my RRSP. I contemplated – for the very first time in my adult life – being completely financially dependent on my partner. As in, needing spending money dependent. I almost choked on that one.
Ultimately, no matter how the logistics looked or felt, I knew it was the right decision – for now. Not forever; I didn’t commit to anything particular. Just that for now, I’d stay home. Or, more accurately, for now I wouldn’t return to work. Maybe in another six months. Maybe I’d work from home (somehow – how to do social work without the “social” part is something I’ll have to figure out). This might be the time for A Transition.
A few months into my mat leave – after the initial learning curve levelled off and I’d been shaken out of the new-mom hazy bliss – I noticed something wonderful about being away from work: my creative mind was sparking for the first time in years. My brain was very happily taking a vacation from pondering solutions to society’s seemingly unsolvable problems and processing others’ emotional pain and frustration and using the time to dream up new product ideas, compose poems, imagine fabulous new employment scenarios, to dream. I had more intellectual energy than I had in a decade, felt full of possibilities. So taking the opportunity to transition into something that would better fit with our life made sense and filled me with excitement.
Resigning was surprisingly easy. Sad, but liberating. For awhile I walked a little lighter, feeling released. At that point I still had a little less than half my mat leave left and felt little pressure to know what came next. In fact, I revelled in the knowledge that I didn’t know: it could be anything!
Fast forward a couple of months. I was offered a job – a job I’d always wanted, and that I’d been working toward for years. When they called, I felt panicked. I got off the phone and cried. My gut was shouting that we weren’t ready – I wasn’t ready; that it would be an end to all the possibilities I’d been dreaming about. More long, tearful conversations and a few sleepless nights. I told them thank you, but no. The timing wasn’t right.
I felt relief – for a day or two. Then without warning, while mindlessly chopping vegetables, fear struck, a jab to the gut: what had I done? Had I made a mistake? A BIG mistake? All the fears hit me at once: did I just turn down a really good opportunity? What if I couldn’t find work once I wanted it? Could we really afford it? Was I going to drown in an ocean of isolation and loneliness? After worrying that I would miss out on so much if I went back to work, I suddenly saw the days and months stretch out in front of us like a bleak, grey landscape and I wondered what I would do with the Bean to fill all that time. Most importantly, I thought, if I don’t work, who am I??
The thought nagged at me. While I have always espoused the belief that work shouldn’t define you, it clearly had, in part. Otherwise I wouldn’t be feeling this dull bruise to my ego as I contemplated letting go of relationships, reputation, my role. Having never thought about it, I liked the person I was at work. Okay, yes: I was proud of the job I did, most of the time. If that part of me was gone, who would I be instead?
The fear came and went in waves. In between I scolded and reminded myself to have gratitude that we can arrange our lives for this; not everyone is so blessed. I wondered, how can I not just be grateful? Can I ever just be happy where I am?
I don’t have the answers. I know I won’t regret being home; I won’t regret a minute with the Bean. I believe it’s the best thing for her and for us. I know that my fears are a reflection of a whole lot of stuff that’s both personal and political; I’m sure I could write a dissertation about if I wasn’t spending my free moments washing diapers and wiping oatmeal off the bookshelf. As could every woman of my generation who is able to take for granted that having it all often means doing more with our time, energy, and sanity than is maybe reasonable or kind to ourselves. And then feeling guilty or resentful for being tired, or not balancing everything with poise. We seem to have come to a place that we haven’t quite come to terms with yet.
For now, the fear is dissipating in the ebb and flow of our every day routine. I’m still excited at the prospect that whatever comes next, work wise, it will be something new, and it will be something that has as much to do with what works for our little unit as anything else. At other moments, fear creeps in, but I remind myself that the unknown path is always scary, but usually rewarding. Another opportunity to breathe and let go, to trust in the universe and to throw intention into the ether: I’m open, universe, send something my way!
Right now, I’m where I’m supposed to be, moving into the story I’ve been telling about myself, working on the next few chapters without an outline. What a fortunate place to be.