I have a friend who went through a pretty serious depression a few years ago. Her life to that point had been all about getting tenure as an engineering professor at a prestigious university. Tenure is given based on contributions to the field through publication, teaching, service to the university, and (for sciences) bringing in grant money. My friend published, taught, and served beautifully, so beautifully, in fact, that her university granted an extension for her to grub some grants rather than denying her tenure outright.
She saw the writing on the wall, applied for a teaching position at a 4-year college where she wouldn’t have to grant-grub, and moved halfway across the country.
She felt like a failure, though.
Part of me understood what she was going through. I had wanted a PhD and didn’t have it, which sparked a minor depression on my part when I turned thirty-one. I felt like a failure then, too. I have a gift that’s largely gone unused for more than a decade, and it’s like a part of me died but its ghost hangs around taunting me with “If Only You Had….”
Two years ago, when I saw another friend dealing with a depression of the who am I and what is the purpose of my life type, I realized that I don’t listen to that ghost of the failed PhD much anymore. Interestingly, I was asking the same questions as my depressed friend—who am I and what is the purpose of my life?—but I wasn’t depressed. I was curious and excited and confident that I’d eventually figure it out. Why didn’t my friend feel the same way I did? Or, put another way, why wasn’t I depressed?
Then I noticed just how many people in my life were dealing with the same questions. Most of them were women in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s, and most of them were floundering in varying degrees of depression.
Wow. Middle age really kicks ass. So I started this blog in search of answers. And after 18 months I have some ideas. If you’re feeling ass-kicked at the moment, perhaps the following will help.
Self-talk is more powerful than you think. I kept telling myself I had to be a PhD to be happy and fulfilled. But I’d married George and the military, which meant we never lived close enough to a PhD program for my dream to come true. When the PhD didn’t happen, I had myself a little pity party, wallowing in my failure. But I eventually realized that I was the only one telling myself I had to have a PhD to be happy. Hmmm. Is it wise to limit oneself and one’s happiness so narrowly? Probably not. I started looking around for other goals—attainable goals—and found a whole big world that I didn’t know existed. I told myself that this was good. And it was.
Our problems are rarely as big as we think they are. My problem was that I didn’t have a PhD. But what did I have at the ripe old age of 31? A job (boring as it was) that put me in near daily contact with friends, a nice house in a cool city, a husband who baked bread, a dog who worshipped me, family that loved me despite how weird I know I am, books, a brain, my health. When I looked at the big picture perspective, was I really a failure? Was my life miserable? Or was I choosing to see it that way?
And that’s what saved me. I recognized that I had a choice. We can’t dictate the conditions of our lives most of the time (if at all), but we can choose how to look at our life. We can choose to talk to ourselves with encouragement and kindness and forgiveness and understanding. We can choose to take what we have and make the best of it. We can choose to do what we must, no matter how unpleasant or frustrating, and we can choose to focus on the big picture that makes those unpleasant tasks worth it. It's just so damn easy to forget that we have a choice.
I got here, to this happy place, the hard way. Now, I’m watching my son start this path, and he’s making all the mistakes I did. When he plays his Wii and the going gets tough, he pitches whiny fits and says things like, “This is the worst day of my life!” He’s expecting it all to be roses and clover and fun. He’s not yet learned the discipline of hard work for a worthy goal. A lot of that work isn’t pleasant or fun or exciting. It’s more like learning your multiplication tables or watching a deadly dull documentary on squids. Sometimes, the only way to entertain yourself is to wonder if you can escape a tedious job by poking your eye out with a pencil.
And that’s just not a good idea.
The work of a stay-at-home mom is often tedious, dull, uninspiring. There is also an alarming amount of poop involved. It’s also lonely. Who wants to listen to someone bitch about laundry or that pink stuff that grows in neglected toilets? There are days when I would gladly sacrifice a body part to get out of having to take Jack to therapy. I mean, how screwed up is that? It's not like sitting in a waiting room is that big a deal. But after three-and-a-half years of multiple weekly sessions, I’m just tired of it. When his physical therapist recently informed me that she will probably discharge Jack in March, my joy was not only for his progress but for my gaining an hour a month of freedom from the waiting room.
But life is how you see it. I’m making a home for two sweet boys who need me. I’m able to read great books while sitting in waiting rooms. I’m not the only cook in the house. I have good friends of the real and virtual kind who read my words and understand. I have extended family who will put up with occasional rants about toilets and waiting rooms, and remind me it’s all going to be okay.
I am not just folding laundry, running errands, and scrubbing dishes; I’m keeping my family dressed, taking care of their needs, and ensuring their health.
I’m also nice to myself, making sure I can do what I enjoy at least a little bit every day. Some days it’s just an hour of crafting after everyone else is asleep, but that’s okay.
If I look at it the right way, it’s more than enough.