Asking Big Questions; Avoiding Molasses Swamp

I like to think of my life as a series of decisive moments: a path forged, full of deliberate, conscious actions so that at any given time, had you asked me about my choices, I could have said something strong and convincing like, “I want to major in a program that will give me breadth in the liberal arts as well as the practical and theoretical grounding I’ll need to be a classroom teacher,” and there I would plant my flag of Genius Plan for Life and you would never question me or have doubts about this Genius Plan for Life because I’d sound so darn convincing when I talked about it.

“It makes complete sense for Brian and I to get married at age 23, because we’ve been together for years, we know each other so well, and our relationship is founded on friendship, so we know it is built to last.” Genius Plan for Life. 

“Graduate school is a great fit for us, because we have so enjoyed the challenge of our honors, upper division humanities courses and we want to do original research and really immerse ourselves in our fields. And, I’ll keep teaching, just in a college context, which has enormous rewards and challenges.” GPFL.

“Two children spaced two years apart is ideal, it keeps everything nice and compact and we know they’ll be best friends.” GPFL.

But underneath those Genius Plans, there are Actual Stories of How it Happened that aren’t nearly as satisfying.

“I bummed around in a few programs but stuck with English Ed because, well, I like English and think teaching would be fun, and by the time I thought of double majoring or something it was going to take too long to do that so I said fuck it.” ASOHIH

“We’re getting married because we’re in love and we don’t want to break up, but it seems weird to us to build our futures around a person we aren’t married to, so we’re making it official.” ASOHIH

“We weren’t ready to do real world work so we decided to stay in college for longer. Then, I had a variety of reasons not to extract myself.” ASOHIH 

“I accidentally got pregnant.” ASOHIH 

I spent so much time in my teenage years fantasizing about my adult life that it seemed impossible I might fuck it up or make any uncalculated move that wasn’t destined for 100% success. I thought adulthood meant (finally!) control over life, and once I had that control I would exercise it completely and perfectly. I never understood the lyrics for “Once In a Lifetime” because I would never be caught off guard by my circumstances.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

You may find yourself in another part of the world

You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile

You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself… well, how did I get here?

I would never just “find myself” somewhere with no clue how I’d arrived (let alone a shotgun shack, whatever THAT was). I would never stumble into a life, never accidentally land somewhere sucky by accident. In the Candyland of my future, I would never be stuck in Molasses Swamp: I would always plan ahead, avoid cards with dots, and take rainbow shortcuts when necessary.

Just Say No To Gloppy the Grad School Recruiter

Imagine my shock at age 31 to find myself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful life, in another part of the world, asking myself HOW DID I GET HERE? No Genius Plan in sight. I decided to quit graduate school, a pursuit to which I’ve dedicated a decade of my life, and the thing on which everything else has hinged. Deciding to quit graduate school has prompted a bit of an identity crisis. It’s hardly surprising, considering I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life – with only a single year’s break – in a classroom. All of them as a student, and eight as a teacher. My entire life is built around school: my year starts in August, not January. It isn’t Christmas unless I’m pulling an all-nighter to submit grades before the deadline. Those cookies aren’t for Santa, they’re my reward for getting through another five-pager about the legal drinking age. I decided to date the man I would eventually marry because I wrote an essay about him for my Interpersonal Communications class. School structures my day, my week, my idea of what an hour feels like; my relationships, my activities, my friendships, my wardrobe, my pastimes, my healthcare, my paycheck, my email address, my everything. I’m made of school. If you did a cross-section of my body, you’d find school supplies: strata of college-rule notebook paper, post-its, and number 2 pencils, all held together by Elmer’s glue.

I’m quitting for a lot of reasons (at least 100) that I’ll get into later, but most of it boils down to I don’t like it and/or I don’t want to. Deciding to quit was really hard, but also really easy. I haven’t had a regret or twinge or a “if-I-just-scramble-and-write-a-ton-I-could-raise-this-barn” obsession in the middle of the night. What I am wondering is… what’s next?

I could be a Mom. We make enough — not a ton, but enough — or rather, my husband does. There would be enough so I could just be a Mom. And that’s really tempting some days. I love the simplicity of it: the pure immediacy of the needs of my family, for once with no competition from a paper or a book or a project. Eventually, I would have time to write and maybe do that thing they call exercise. My girls are young and I know this time is precious and fleeting. Maybe I would rise to the occasion, plant a gorgeous garden, and complete all those projects I Pinterested. It sounds peaceful.

Then, there are times like this weekend, when my oldest was sick, needy, and clingy, and the weather was too rotten to get out, and my husband worked so it was just me and them and me and them and me and them in the house and by Sunday night I was extremely crabby and desperate to get away. I love being with my kids,  but I get restless. I get bored, and I crave alone time and adult company, but I don’t think we can afford those fancy things if I’m not employed.

Plus, while I appreciate the aesthetics of a clean home, I do not enjoy the process. As my husband delicately put it the other night, “You’re not the most… domestic person in the world.” Maybe I’d go all Anne Sexton and get crazy and weird and cranky if I was at home all the time. Maybe I’d be depressed and bored and a terrible Mom because I’d constantly be wanting a moment, JUSTONEFUCKINGMOMENT, to myself, instead of enjoying the little things. What if Brian lost his job? What if one of my kids got sick and we couldn’t afford to care for her? What if my parents get sick or the car, ya know, EXPLODES? Could Brian ever retire? What if, what if?

So okay, fine, maybe the thing to do is get a job. Lawd knows I have truckloads of student loans to pay off, plus there are house projects we could fund (like that whole thing they call PLUMBING). I have some possible leads on positions that I’d probably like in places I wouldn’t hate (mostly student services-type stuff at the college level), and I could make reasonable money, and my girls would continue in preschools/daycares that they enjoy. I could use both my knowledge and experience, which would be pretty radical considering how little graduate school actually applies to anything in real life. I could interact with grown ups, do something that might feel like it made a bit of difference in the world. We’d bustle around and see People and do Things and maybe get a Minivan!

When I zoom out from my life and view it from above, this seems like a very sane choice. Money is a good thing. It’s secure. It’s such a satisfying outcome: “Oh, I left grad school but I have this great job and I’m doing this great work so it wasn’t crazy, it wasn’t at all crazy to go into thousands of dollars of debt and spend eight years of my life getting two semi-worthless master’s degrees and a job I was qualified for 5 years ago.” Getting a job sounds like this was a Genius Plan for Life all along. It’s a language that people recognize. It’s less iffy. Less “Hmmm?” and more “Aha!”

But. It also sounds exhausting. I barely have time to prepare dinner as is, and I have so little to do during the day, you guys. When would I grocery shop?  When would I clean? Would I spend every evening snapping at the girls because they’re trying to get my attention when I have to cook, pay bills, clean up, etc? What if someone got sick? Would I ever write? Would I have friends? Would I be close to my girls if I spent all day away from them? My Mom was a SAHM until I was in jr high, so how do I work this? Would this open doors or close them? Would the tradeoffs be worth a life of stress? Would I live to work or work to live?

I go back and forth constantly. I know what I don’t want, but I don’t know what I do want. And I also know that there’s no perfect solution, that no one thing will be the perfect next step. It’s all always messy, even when it’s right. I suppose I am grateful for the privilege to chose.

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5 responses to “Asking Big Questions; Avoiding Molasses Swamp

  1. Lauren,
    Thank you for this posting. I just stumbled on your blog and bookmarked it to view future postings. I recently dropped out of a graduate program and I would say that I’m definitely having a bit of an identity crisis. Thankfully, I’ve beginning to feel better and I’m searching for work, somewhat unsuccessfully so far, but I have hope. The distinction that you made between “Genius life plans” and how things “actually happen”. Amen to that. I’m 22 years old and went to grad school right out of undergrad. I love academics but couldn’t stay in a place where my whole academic experience was just…lackluster. I’m still trying to understand if what I faced was “the system” or a school that just wasn’t a good fit from the beginning. You mentioned you were/are interested in the humanities- I too was interested in anthropology, museums, and the arts and I still love those things…I’m just a bit afraid to reapply to PhD programs (I was in a Terminal Master’s program and felt that perhaps I should have just signed on for the whole thing). *Sigh* It sounds as though we both have “planning personalities” and for me the most difficult thing has been letting go and just…going with the flow after school. I’m used to the structure and it’s odd to be out. Any advice? Words of wisdom? At this moment I have to say I’m pretty happy that I left so I can pay off some of my loans. Peace of mind? Maybe. Meh.

    • Arianna,
      I also went straight from undergrad to grad, which I think was an epic mistake. I also wish I’d gone to a proper MA program instead of straight into a PhD, which didn’t give me much breadth in coursework (so I’m not well-positioned to teach in, say, a community college).

      I’m pretty firmly anti-grad school at this point, I really do think it’s a Ponzi scheme of sorts, but I also understand the lure of the life of the mind. It’s a tricky spot to be in.

  2. Pingback: Grad School Quittas: What To Expect When You’re Quitting | mama nervosa

  3. Pingback: 4 Roads Not Travelled: What I Should Have Done Instead of Going to Grad School | mama nervosa

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