Wednesday, January 16, 2013

So, So Behind

Next month, I turn 42.  And I am still working on trying to lay the grounds to start a new career.  Laying the grounds as in trying to find time to study for the GREs, trying to find time to research some schools, trying to find time to read up more on the subject in general, trying to find time to talk to people in the field so that I can decide whether that is what I ultimately want to do, and trying to find the time to do enough due diligence on the subject so that I can assure myself that I am making the right decision. You know, the kind of stuff I should have done when I was in my early 20s.

I feel like I'm two decades behind. Well, actually, I am. The other evening, I asked a stay at home mom if she would consider starting a new career at this point.  She said, "Gosh, maybe I'll go back to what I was doing before, but I can't imagine trying to start all over again!" She is younger than me. Not too long ago, I read a New York Times article about Oprah's efforts to "attract 'women in their 30s or perhaps their 20s, to be able to reach people when they are looking to fulfill their destiny" because according to Oprah, "[b]y the time you're 40, 42, you should have kind of figured it out already."

She is right. Oprah is always right. I should have figured it out by now. I should have spent my teenage and college years exploring. Trying out this and that, talking to people in different fields to learn more about their jobs, working as an intern in organizations that piqued my interest. Instead, I spent most of my time coming up with arguments as to why I would not make a good doctor. And when my parents finally accepted that I would not become a brain surgeon, I then worked on trying to rationalize to myself why I would make a good lawyer (my parents' second and only other choice for an acceptable career), even though I had little idea what lawyers did.

We did not grow up in an environment where we were encouraged to explore and to try to determine our future paths for ourselves. Instead, all doors were closed except for one or two. And it was our job to make ourselves fit through one of those doors, no matter how misshapen or contorted. I spent a lot of time banging my head against them and then tending to my bruises. It was the antithesis of exploring.

But even so, you'd think I could have done something in my late 20s and 30s to help myself.  I graduated from law school in 1998, when I was 27. That left me 15 years to fashion some career that I could call my own. But instead, I just put on my good worker bee smile and did all that was expected of a good associate. I put in my hours, cancelled dinners as well as holiday and vacation plans when necessary, and collected my paychecks. I also spent a fair number of my free hours pondering over alternative career options with friends over $15 gin and tonics. I really have no one to blame but myself.

But it's not all that bad. I think if my last job had not ended as it had, then I may still be there or at some other law firm, washing away my doubts with $15 drinks. And telling myself that I should be lucky to have such a well paying job. And delaying my life crisis until retirement, when it would be too late to do anything about it. Thank god they threw me out.

Motherhood is my second chance. It gives me a break from the career that I never wanted and an opportunity to start again. Unlike most women who worry that taking time out to raise their children will damage their careers, I'm grateful for this time off.

But I still worry that I'm too far behind.  I feel pressured to get going on my career. I've already wasted two decades -- so much time to make up for. I hear about my college classmates who've written books, whose articles appear in the magazines I purchase, those who have fulfilled the dreams that I did not let myself entertain, much less aspire for. And when I hear about them, I sometimes find myself in tears. What have I done with all this time? Why have I accomplished so little? Why do I have so little to show for my life so far?

When I talk like this to Jeff, he often points to my law degree and my legal career. That's not nothing, he says. Perhaps, I say, but your career is only as meaningful as the value you place on it. And for me, my legal background didn't measure up to anything, not in my eyes. It held little meaning for me. And I think its unhappy ending diminished it even more.

Things were rolling along somewhat while we had a babysitter, even though I found that 10 hours a week really boils down to far less -- after you have shaken the children off of your leg, put away this or that, and thrown in the laundry. And reluctant to leave both an infant and a toddler in the hands of a college student, I tried to line up the babysitter to come during our toddler's nap -- except that on occasion, he refused to go along with my plans and I would find my three hours abbreviated to one and a half. But at least I had some time to regroup myself.

Then, in early December, our babysitter quit. We quickly lined up another, and planned to get her on board right after the holidays when she would be available. But shortly after the new year, she emailed to say that she had found a more career-oriented position. So now, we are back to the drawing board. Looking up potential babysitters, setting up interviews, checking references. The whole process will take a couple of weeks or longer, and I feel so impatient. For some reason, this feels like a crisis moment -- and perhaps that is what this is. My midlife crisis.

I am starting to understand mothers who are narcissists -- those who have so many personal needs to meet that they cannot meet the needs of their children. God forbid, I'm not a narcissist -- but I can taste the hint of my personal need colliding with the needs of my children -- and at the center stage of all this is our mutual need for my time. And the biggest question is how to slice the pie so that we can all feel somewhat satisfied and not denied. All I want are a couple of hours a day -- it seems so simple, but in the middle of this feeling of crisis, I feel as if a lifetime is passing me by.

I try to still my anxiety -- and my impatience. But I don't know any tricks. I just command and rebuke myself, which only muddles things inside. I am hoping that writing this down will help me sort out my inner turmoil. Why so urgent now? What difference do a few months make, especially since I'm so late as it is? Right?

And maybe I'm not as late as I think. 42. Really, is that so late to start working on a new career? Well, actually, it'll be a couple of years before I can even start a program since I need to study for the GREs, take the exam, apply to schools, etc. So maybe 44. Not a bad number, is it? According to Wikipedia, the number is considered to be a "hitter's number" because it was the number for Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson. So, I'll have to bank on their luck and keep my fingers crossed for a homerun when I finally get my chance at the bat. I just hope that time doesn't fly until then because I need all the time I can get.



    I think the first few paragraphs are relevant to you. I've been reading your posts for a while, so when I came across this article it reminded me of you.

    1. Thank you so much for the link! I really enjoyed reading it (I actually read it a few times). I don't know if "entitlement" is actually the right word, but something akin to it -- maybe more of an expectation one sets for oneself. Something to think about...

    2. I don't think entitlement is the right word either, but I think that her point -- that she automatically expects to achieve at the highest level without failing, and anything short is a failure, is unreasonable -- is valid. I think it's a product of your (and mine too!) upbringing that causes a lot of unnecessary stress.

      On another note, thanks for blogging! I've been following since you made waves on Above the Law. As a young attorney, your blog has opened my eyes to potential pitfalls and things that I was naive about. I love your writing style and am excited about your journey.

  2. Dear Shinyung,

    I spent the last two days reading through your blog and I finally felt compelled to leave a trace. If only to show my appreciation for your honesty, fierce vulnerability, and courageous openness.

    Oprah is often very wrong. While I admire her work ethic, I don't believe she has a right to speak for everyone. Rather, I hope that you will take the words of a truly remarkable woman to heart: "It's never too late to be what you might have been." - George Elliot.

    I have very much enjoyed reading through your blog and it has given me much comfort as I deal with the whirlwind of emotions following my own recent miscarriage and my foray into new careers (two! Who says you have to chose one?). I am also an immigrant daughter (from Africa) and the parallels between your family and mine are many. I also have lived (and still live) with the guilt of a ransomed life. It is a difficult feeling for many native-born Americans to understand. The feeling that your life is not yours but a loan you must repay everyday for the rest of your life because many difficult sacrifices were made for your life to be possible. I, too, ended up in law school because it was a more viable option than medical school. I, too, now am finding my voice as a writer again and I am giving myself permission to write because I want to.

    But, this post hit close to home. I have a daughter that is less than a year old and she needs me in a way that both delights and frightens me. I find my need for time and space to deal with the grief of my miscarriage and with the anxieties of attempting to launch new careers bumping against her need to be held and to be the center of my world...

    1. Dear Anonymous, thank you so, so much for your note (and for George Elliot's quote). It's so heart warming to know that others out there can connect with what I've written, what I've experienced. To read your words and to feel like I could have written the exact same thing. I'm so sorry to hear of your miscarriage. You must be flooded by hormones and emotions at the moment. And it is difficult to grieve when you already have a baby to take care of. Hang in there. I hope you write back because I'm curious to hear how you find your way. We can compare notes -- and help each other!