Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Acceptance as/or Re-Invention

I wrote this post some time ago, but then let the draft sit, almost deleting it once or twice. Then I saw Duchesse's post today and her query about how we might be re-inventing ourselves post-50. I realized that for me, it's not so much about re-inventing as it is about accepting myself, not needing to prove myself anymore, enjoying where I am and what I can do rather than setting a new goal.

So here's the post I wrote. As usual, I welcome your feedback. And if, when you've finished, you are looking for another overly-long post to read, hop over to my review of Abha Dawesar's That Summer in Paris.

I struggled in my 20's with needing to be at home with my children (born, respectively, when I was 23, 26, 29, and 32) and yet wanting a meaningful career and more education. I regularly compared myself to other women who seemed to manage brilliant careers and charming families (a comparison that 70s representations of Superwomen and the subsequent so-called Mommy Wars encouraged). Gradually, I recognized -- and almost accepted -- that none of us were "doing it all" happily and healthily, that tradeoffs were always made, even if they weren't obvious in the airbrushed moves we made in any public sphere.

As my kids grew, I completed my Piano Performer's Diploma (A.R.C.T.) and taught twenty to thirty hours weekly, and then, eventually, began completing my B.A. which led to an M.A. and then to a PhD and, happily, to paid work that I love, work that feels meaningful, in my own community. (I suspect I've traced this trajectory on this blog before, perhaps as part of a similar meditation -- please excuse the repetition)

Having ascended one ladder, I quickly recognized that I was near the bottom rung of another -- academe does hierarchy very well indeed. I also realized that the good ol' Imposter Syndrome was happy to settle down, always finding a quiet pocket of insecurity to get comfortable in. To keep climbing, to keep the Imposter Syndrome at bay, I should be pursuing an active research and writing agenda. Despite a heavy teaching schedule (4 and 4, generally, with some exceptions for upper-level teaching), I could and often do use my non-teaching time for this. This past spring, for example, I managed to pull off two conference presentations, and this summer, if I'd been diligent and driven enough I could have expanded one of these into an article to submit for publication. Instead, I've outlined both, got together some research materials, but done very little writing.

Thus every time I sit down to read a mystery novel or even a literary one that does not directly contribute to teaching or research scholarship, I feel guilty. Every day that passes without words added to my essay or, at the very least, to improving my fall syllabus, leaves me wondering if I'm entitled to my office up the hill. A true intellectual would surely be captivated by her work, would be driven by her curiosity and her love of a convincing argument such that she wouldn't be so easily tempted by the water or the garden or the big easy chair, she wouldn't be so ready to call up girlfriends to sit drinking G&T's on the terrace, she wouldn't be so happy to surrender a whole week to watching a small child grow.

In that case, I'm quite ready to admit I'm not truly an intellectual, in case there were ever any doubts. I do hope that my students gain something from someone who is intellectually engaged enough, has credible enough qualifications, but who is also very much involved with the smaller pleasures and curiosities and challenges of the everyday world. I like to think that wandering the garden with a camera, collating random facts gleaned from a variety of reading sources, observing a wide swath of lifestyles, writing about quotidian activities of family life, all these ways of observing and witnessing the world enhance my own creative abilities and thus contribute to my scholarship and teaching, if obliquely.

What I know is that at this age I'm not giving up any more of myself to climb arbitrarily-assigned-or-chosen ladders. I doubt I'll ever let go of the guilt that I "should" be doing something more "productive," more work-oriented, but my consciousness that I only have a few decades left is a powerful motivator to ignore the guilt. Watching my mother confront the encroaching frailties of old age while my new granddaughter takes on life with vigor provides a powerful perspective. As another summer ends, I want to remember its sweetness, the room it afforded for all those parts of me that get pushed into dark corners through the academic year. Because I stepped away from the desk so much this summer, I'm ready to head back to it and to my students with a renewed energy for teaching and research. It's all about the balance, right?


  1. I don't think that you should ever feel guilty about taking time to do things that add to the rich brew and that go towards making you who you are. I am now more-or-less retired, and thankful for it because I was in a demanding and deadline-driven profession and was becoming more and more desperate to have the time and energy to do other things. And sometimes to have the time and space to do nothing. My income has plummeted, so treats are now very occasional - but all the more joyous for that. For example, I treated myself - in the summer sales - to a fuschia pink linen shirt, which has given me immense pleasure. And this must be infectious because people say encouraging things about the shirt - and smile at me when I'm wearing it . . .

    I'd hazard a guess that when, in future years, the students at your university look back, you will be one of the people they remember - and remember with gratitude because of the way you taught, as well as what you taught.

  2. In fact, true intellectuals are extremely devoted to their best friends and their gin and tonics. I read it somewhere, I think. In a very dusty book, most likely.

  3. "Ambition is really a form of power, the desire for power over myself and over others, the power to do something better than anybody else. In ambition, there is a sense of comparison; and therefore, the ambitious man is never really a creative man, is never a happy man; in himself he is discontented. And yet, we think that without ambition we should be nothing, we should have no progress. Is there a different way of doing things without ambition, a different way of living, acting, building, inventing, without this struggle of competition in which there is cruelty and which ultimately ends in war? I think there is a different way. But that way requires doing something contrary to all the established customs of thought. When we are seeking a result, the important thing is the result, not the thing we do, in itself. Can we understand and love the thing which we are doing, without caring for what it will produce, what it will get us, or what name or what reputation we will have?" J. Krishnamurthi

    Says it all for me, ma. Sorry about the "man" bit.

  4. I have no wild ambition to climb up the academic ladder either. It irks me, however, that others try to impose their greed for power on us: demanding that we publish a certain number of papers in certain journals, on certain subjects, in the name of the university's "visibility". They threaten us with various punishments including doubling our teaching hours. So that now when I read something for pleasure, I feel not only guilty but also worried and insecure.

  5. i felt...under-accomplished recently. measuring myself against someone else's success, or idea of success, did not feel good. but then i had a separate reminder that life is very short. in each moment, am i doing what i want to be doing?

  6. 60/16: Thanks! Your posts on life after retirement inspire me to look forward to that stage. Meanwhile, I love much about my work, but I could do without the constant sense that I could do more. . . . nature of the beast!
    LPC: If you lived nearby, I'd invite you over to discuss the matter over G&Ts. Intellectually, of course.
    Duchesse: A very wise quotation indeed. Part of my problem is from a mismatch between my own ambitions and the demands of my profession. Part of it is a propensity for guilt developed in childhood and then nurtured through motherhood. But I'm working on it, re-inventing myself as a self-accepting being!
    Lesley: I think that outside our academic world, it's hard to understand how porous the boundaries are expected to be between work and personal life, and how integrated into every daily hour the expectation that research will be advanced. While it might have been easier to buy into these values if I'd begun this work earlier, coming into it in late middle age meant my perspective kept, and keeps, me sceptical. Sceptical, but still susceptible.
    Up/Down: Those reminders come in different forms, sometimes joyous, sometimes frightening, but they're always worthwhile for their (however temporary) power to direct our eyes to a bigger picture. May you continue to see your life as a success for some time! I find it's a constant negotiation, but a state worth striving for again and again.

  7. Very interesting ruminations, materfamilias.

    As someone who spent my 40's climbing the corporate ladder, I'm now as high as I'd ever imagined I'd want to be, and wish to go no higher. I look forward to new projects and challenges, but beyond that I'm content to "ride out" whatever time I still have with this position/employer. (It's probably only a matter of time before we are outsourced or "restructured" out. The big worry is keeping health insurance going; it would be next to impossible for us to purchase health insurance on the individual market due to "pre-existing conditions.")

    I think it's fine and healthy to "work to live" and take time out for hedonism. My work/life balance philosophy has always been more aligned with the European model, anyway. And I love the quote that Duchesse posted, so true!

  8. Lovely post! It's so relevant to all. When did it become such a push to be "the best"? And what does that mean? Why can't we be happy as a shopkeeper who provides wonderful service and creates a lovely retreat for her customers? Why can't we be happy to just be still and quiet without music, etc.?

    I think we all have the longing inside to know that we've made a difference, and I think we forget that it doesn't have to be the cure for cancer in order to make a difference.

    You give your family, your friends, your students, and your readers a gift -- the gift of your time, your love, your energy, your insight... what could be more fulfilling and making a difference than that?

  9. Fascinating post. I know the guilt that comes with being not ambitious enough (for whom?) ... I made the conscious choice, along the way, to put serious ambition/intellectual pursuit aside while my children were young. Do I regret it? Not for a second. Yet I do sometimes envy friends of mine who have pursued those goals. And now I am itching to exercise my brain again, but I don't think I'll ever be able to be single-minded about it. Life has too many facets to devote yourself to just one. As our Governor-General (mother of five, grandmother of lots!) has said (and she's probably not the only one) - 'Yes, you can have it all, just not all at the same time'.

  10. Pseu: The practicalities of health care, riding out, getting outsourced, etc., that you address are exactly the knife's edge of the balance I'm aiming at. It's one thing to embrace self-acceptance and eschew ambition, but one must also satisfy the demands of one's paid position enough to keep getting paid. In academia -- as, I know, in upper-level corporate life -- the "job" is never, ever "done" and weekends, summer holidays, evenings and late nights are all fair game for more and ever-more research. So finding a way to pay Caesar and God, so to speak, becomes a big challenge . . . but must be done!
    Gina: Exactly! And since there is always going to be someone "better" somewhere, that quest to be best is doomed to result in our unhappiness. Gradually, I hope, we learn that contentment can be attained in gentler, perhaps smaller, ways. If students feel I've inspired or supported them, that will substitute, for example, for the books I could/should have published instead of the articles.
    Tiffany: Yes! This choice does make a difference in what one can reasonably achieve, and that's a fair cost, I believe. But sometimes there's a glimpse of what might have been, what we could have done otherwise, and there's a momentary twinge -- not of regret, ever, but nonetheless recognition of a lost possibility, a price paid. Overall, a price I'd pay over and over and over. Your G-G sounds like a wise woman!

  11. This is really a fascinating and oh so relevant post. In one sense I gave up that striving to "be the best" years ago when I gave up my corporate job and my VP suits. But all of those insecurities, and strivings, and occasional regrets linger. I think it is part of being human. But leaving your mark and making a difference do not have to happen on a grand scale. I think the small things we do and enjoy are often the ones most remembered, most lasting.

    I think you must have some intellectual leanings if you worry about these things; but are not cosumed by ambition, which is a good thing.

  12. Mardel: Yes, it's one thing to "give up" some of those aspirations, but the lingering . . . as you say, part of being humanity and silly to deny. We adjust and we know we are wise, but there lingers something nonetheless. ..


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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