Success. Aiming for it. Feeling like we missed the boat. Lack of job opportunities. Envy. If there is anything that defined my 20s (and my very early 30s), this was it. And now, with the job market in wreckage, this is a conversation that’s happening over and over again, whispered over the pillow late at night, discussed over dinner, sobbed about over the dishes. Michelle’s post about coming to terms with feeling less successful than her husband is a conversation we all need to be having on a grand scale. Success and shame are too closely wrapped together to keep these conversations private. (Also, if you’d like to submit a post on success, careers, and your relationships, please do!)
When Josh and I got engaged in college, we were six hundred miles apart and our day-to-day relationship consisted of talking on the phone and online. Sometimes about the boring stuff, but sometimes about the big, meaningful, how-will-we-approach-the-rest-of-our-lives stuff. I’m not going to lie. Going into premarital counseling and into the wedding, I pretty much thought we had it figured out. We took a quiz designed to see how we lined up on the Big Issues, and aced it. I was psyched.
As our long engagement wore on and graduation and the wedding inched up on us, we made an agreement. I was in Boston, he was in Pennsylvania, our families were in Ohio, but we decided that we would move to wherever one of us got a good job first (knowing it would probably be none of those places). And I, as I tend to do, whispered to myself I got this. My head was full of plans to make it big and the stubborn expectation that I would do it before my graduation cap hit the ground from its celebratory toss. Some of my friends had already landed sweet jobs, and I was at least as awesome as they were.
Then Josh’s great internship position in Virginia turned into a great job offer in Virginia, and off we went. Newlywed bliss and snuggling and eating real food instead of frozen chicken fingers was wonderful. We enjoyed every minute together, but during the long days when Josh was at work, I was compulsively checking Craigslist for job postings and wondering why my awesomeness wasn’t paying off yet. I got really depressed, fast, and had pretty regular breakdowns about how I couldn’t contribute, and my education was a waste, and I was worthless. Bitterness and nervous breakdowns are not exactly things you want to be experiencing at the beginning of your new life. (Side note: I became convinced that the solution to all my problems was to have a baby for some validation. Thankfully, Josh very nicely pointed out that we had been married four months and to calm the heck down.) Eventually I found a mediocre job that gave me something to do and a paycheck, but I still felt unfulfilled.
About a year and a half into married life, Josh came home seeming extra stressed. His current position was being eliminated, and he could apply to two other ones—one in DC and one in Denver. We deliberated for weeks and asked just about everyone we knew for advice, but when he was offered both jobs, we had no idea what to do. I told him it was his career decision, but I also didn’t try to hide the fact that I desperately wanted to start my job search over in Denver. He knew I had sacrificed when we moved to Virginia, so we decided to go west. We got on a plane and looked at the mountains as we landed and thought, “Holy cow, what have we done.”
Employment has come much easier here for me, but Josh is still very much the breadwinner. Maybe it’s because I am a few years out of college or maybe because I have a decent job now, but I have been slowly absorbing the idea that my job is not my life. I can and do find joy in traveling, spending time with friends, learning new skills, supporting Josh, and serving others in a way that would not be possible if I was successful in the way I originally wanted to be. (I am reminded that you can have everything you want, just not at the same time.)
But, I am not perfect. Sometimes I still get a little cloudy over the fact that Josh is making progress and has an impressive and solid career trajectory, and I am a somewhat specialized manual laborer. He finished his Master’s degree a couple weeks ago and is in the process of getting a promotion and hiring someone to work beneath him. He is extremely smart and (probably correctly) said the other day that he feels like he could have done well in almost any career. My old feelings of inadequacy snuck up on me, and that little voice in my head said and you can barely do well in the field you’re trained in! I had to forcefully remind myself our wonderful life and the things I would have to give up to have it any other way.
A quote from So Long, Insecurity by Beth Moore (a terrible title but an amazing book that every woman should read) came to mind. It is referring to the “bad math” that women use when comparing themselves to each other, but I think it applies to the competitive pressure between spouses to be successful too.
“We can esteem another [person's] achievements without feeling like an idiot…. Where on earth did we come up with the idea that we have to subtract value from ourselves in order to give credit to someone else?”
Life is not a contest, and I would be terrible at Josh’s job. I like being a worker bee in a big operation with my little job to do and not too much responsibility. It just took me a while to figure that out, and it takes regular reminders to remember it.
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