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The Julia Child Dilemma

My husband Alastair and I got married in May (*insert jump for joy here*) and we are moving abroad in October. His company has a program that allows certain employees to work out of two of the company’s foreign offices for six to nine months each, and there are about ninety-seven offices to choose from. The world is our oyster! After much deliberation and debate, we finally settled on Johannesburg, South Africa, followed by London—nine months each. It’s official.

Almost everyone to whom I’ve mentioned this opportunity gushes. They say things like, “Oh, how exciting!” and “What a cool opportunity!” and “The world is your oyster!” They’re right, of course. It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity. But up until very recently, whenever I thought about our upcoming adventure, about which other people seemed so positive, I felt apprehensive… and negative… and bummed out. Then I felt guilty about feeling apprehensive and negative and bummed out. Why are you being weird about this? I’d ask myself. This is awesome! Appreciate it, damn it! (As it happens, berating oneself does not generally help change one’s feelings. Who knew?)

It wasn’t that I was scared to go abroad. I’ve lived all over Latin America, most recently working in São Paulo for the second half of 2010 while Al was working in Nairobi (we are—not to brag—really good at Skyping). We also travel a lot together, usually taking one or two international trips a year when we can swing it, and I’m pretty comfortable being thrown into the deep end with languages, cultures, and crappy public transportation. I’ve got all that covered.

It also wasn’t that I was scared about living somewhere new with Al. Quite the opposite, in fact. Over the almost five years that we’ve been together, we’ve both lived all over the world—but always separately. I’m thrilled to bits at the prospect of living abroad with him, at having some little apartment with a weird bathroom with the drain in the floor by the toilet and a bidet (… probably).

So what was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I excited about this?

I wasn’t excited because I was creating a lot of false dichotomies for myself when I thought about our adventure abroad. I had it in my head that in order for me to travel somewhere with my husband, for his career, it would imply that my career was somehow unimportant, that I was following him around like an aimless puppy while he pursued his dreams, that I was giving up myself in order to support my partner. In our initial talks about the going-abroad idea, I kept saying in a voice that was only slightly whiny, “But what will I do? I don’t want to just do yoga for a year.” I asked that even though no one had ever suggested I do yoga for a year. I don’t even do yoga now.

My thinking was, I’m an attorney—I’ve slogged through seven years of higher education and tens of thousands of student loans to get where I am. I passed the California bar, for Pete’s sake! I can’t just give that up and follow someone around while my career languishes.

I thought this way despite the fact that I have never, not for one second, pictured myself working long-term at a law firm, and, in fact, never enjoyed it. I thought this way despite the fact that I wouldn’t be “following someone” somewhere, I’d be accompanying my husband, the person I care most about in the world and who supports me unconditionally. And I thought this way despite the fact that there are abundant opportunities for me to find fulfilling, interesting, challenging work abroad, or even to make that work for myself, wherever we end up going.

In retrospect, my attitude seems absurdly negative and self-defeating.

I was choosing to ignore all the wonderful things that moving away represented while focusing on the negative and worrying that I’d somehow lose my identity by compromising. In my head, my career and Al’s career were zero-sum. If one flourished, the other would have to wither. Rather than thinking of living abroad as a great adventure for the two of us, I thought of it as a sacrifice I would have to make for him. I was making myself into a martyr even though no one—least of all Alastair—was asking me to do so.

As it turns out, it took a while (months) for me to break through my haze of unhelpful negativity and change my thinking. Part of it involved realizing that my two choices for my life are not: 1) wearing yoga pants and eating bonbons as I watch Wheel of Fortune (or the foreign equivalent thereof) or 2) wearing a power suit and pearls as I claw my way to the top of Big Law, leaving a trail of crying paralegals in my wake. (Oh.) Part of it also involved embracing the fact that, actually, I don’t really even like being a lawyer. What I love to do and have always loved to do is write, and a year and a half abroad might be the perfect opportunity for me to actually give the whole professional writing thing an honest-to-goodness shot. Huh.

This shift in thinking was also influenced by the movie Julie & Julia. There is a really wonderful scene in that movie where Julia Child has just moved to Paris with her husband, Paul. They’re sitting in a red-leather booth in a Paris restaurant, tucking into something delectable, when Julia, cutting her food agitatedly, asks Paul, “What should I do, do you think?” She muses that she doesn’t want to return to government work and thinks she really ought to find something to do. “Wives don’t do anything here,” she says. “That’s not me.” Of course, we know what Julia Child ended up doing in Paris. She found something she loved and created an amazing career for herself at a time where that type of initiative was not expected of wives. The world was truly her (buttery, delicious) oyster.

What I’ve finally realized, thanks to chats with wise people, self-reflection, and Julie & Julia, is the following: My career does not need to fail if I don’t want it to. I do not need to strap on a permanent pair of yoga pants (unless I want to). And I do not need to martyr myself on a pyre of self-pity. Instead, I can use our time abroad as a springboard for making the huge (and, yes, scary) leap into something I’ve always wanted to do. As I contemplate the same question that Julia faced (“What should I do?”), I vow to Julia Child the crap out of any situation I’m thrown into and embrace living abroad with my husband as what it should be: an opportunity for me and a fantastic adventure for us.

Photo by: Emily Takes Photos

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