Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Life Is How We See It

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.


  1. Well, join the crowd -- 30-35 years ago. I had received my BS degree several years before and was in a job I enjoyed and all of a sudden most of my friends either already had their Master's degree or were working on it. What was I missing? Why wasn't I in school? But I asked myself - what would I gain by going to school for 2 more years? What would the degree attain me that I didn't already have? NOTHING. So I quit questioning it. I'm happy, content and that's what counts.

  2. Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing someone say "I'm JUST a housewife." This tells me they may have bought into the false notion that there's more "out there" than what we have while raising the next generation and creating a haven from the world for a husband and children. Measuring success by the letters after our names or by reaching our goals is like the Israelites measuring their success (or happiness) by what they accomplished in Egypt. We learned at Bible study today that God had a better plan for His people than they had for themselves. But first, He had to bring them through the wilderness of depression, hardship, and longing for the "good" life before He brought them into the Promised Land. He hasn't changed.

  3. Thank you. As usual I got a lot out of your post.

  4. This is a great essay, and just what I needed to read. I linked this on my Facebook page for my friends to see... thank you :)

  5. To keep it short enough for a Blog, I just have to say, "HANG ON!" God's timing is ALWAYS perfect and He saved the BEST for last. With 74 years of hindsight under my belt, I can say that with happy confidence.

  6. thank you, susan, for another wonderful reminder of what is really important in our lives. we have much to be thankful for.
    enjoy your day!
    hugs, marty ferraro

  7. Thank you for this. I, too, stay at home and am drowning in tedium sometimes. I'd been kicking my own butt for the last few years for not finishing college, also, until I just got too tired of my own whiny interior voice.

    But it is true, happiness is, sometimes, a choice that we make.

  8. Thank you for putting this into words! I can relate, especially to the "who wants to listen" part. My four children are adults now, but there were years of going to my husband's office parties and feeling I had nothing to talk about with the career wives. Not that I dwelled on it too much -- I was happy we could afford for me to be home with the children -- but I dreaded those office parties! And there was the occasional twinge of guilt about how much my parents paid for my college education. Stay-at-home-mothers are underated and underappreciated, but not by their children.

  9. My husband is currently going through what your friend did at her university. It's tough going for him, being the 'breadwinner' to want to do the best for his family and hating every minute of what he has to do in order to provide. Putting up with the politics of university life. (I think there may be a change sometime this year...)
    I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to stay home with my kids. I've worked part time for years, but have always been here for the kids. Until this week. I had to work real work hours and not be here when daughter hit the door home from school (remember our generation being latch-key kids with no guilt? ) I had huge guilt not being there for her.
    I have guilt in that I cannot make lots of money doing what I do. I have that guilt when Brent is sooo frustrated with his job and we're straining to make ends meet, that I cannot just come through with a huge paycheck.
    We're a team, Brent and I. And while he may be the brainiac with a PhD, I am also a brainiac with no letters behind my name.
    And it's all good. We make it work. Sometimes the education thing (or lack of) hits me when I want a pity party, but those times are few and far between. Usually, when they do, I just head out to the pasture and visit my animal friends. They don't care one bit about stuff like that and, as far as I'm concerned, they have the right idea about life.
    It is as it should be.

  10. Perspective is the key. I think an examined life can feed either doubt or reassurance about the choices we've made. We do need to be kind to ourselves and appreciate the lives we have built, the relationships we've sustained, the people we have nurtured. I think what haunts us in midlife is the sense we are running out of time. It's not that I don't think the things I've done are good, it's just that I'm wondering what's left for the remainder.

  11. As usual, extremely well-stated. I may share part of it with my sixth graders who roll their eyes as they try to get me to believe anything that isn't entertaining isn't worth doing.

    I went through the same thing. Never got my masters because family time was more important than the driving time I would have had to dole out to get to the nearest university.

    But recently I have come to realize, that was a great decision. My memories of my children are worth so much more. Age has pushed me to be content. I'm so glad it has.

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