It started when I got married. Not that I hadn’t been ambitious before, but in my 20’s as I worked my way up the television production ladder, my goals for success seemed reasonable. Natural. Attainable at the pace I was working.
When The Gorilla and I decided to hitch ourselves to one another for life, I was really burned out at the type of reality tv work I was doing, and we were both tired of a relationship with two people working frantically, with lengthy, inflexible travel. Neither of us felt anchored, and we wanted to start a family. The show I worked on right up until our wedding was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and we decided that I would take a break from tv for awhile to travel with him and handle some major things that were slipping through the cracks as a result of two of us putting in 12-14 workdays.
That first year went by in a flash. There was a lot to do to get our lives where we wanted it, and we also had a blast traveling when I tagged along while he worked. Then I had a difficult pregnancy with our daughter, then we were new parents. In that time, I helped him out on a few low-budget projects (hey, I was free labor!), but mostly I took the lead on all things home-and-baby-related while he was able to drive forward a career that was already flourishing.
Even though I wasn’t then earning an income, I never felt comfortable calling myself a stay-at-home anything. I’ve been open that I have help with our kids and our family enjoys many luxuries that made it ridiculous for me to claim such a title. But I was embarrassed that I didn’t work in an office and that I didn’t exactly stay at home. No matter that The Gorilla and I (the only people who mattered here) were comfortable with our decision, no matter the valid justifications for why I was no longer working, I couldn’t stand it.
So I started this blog. Writing has been the only thing I could ever truly see myself doing all day, and blogging as a medium fits my personality. I have poured myself into this space for 4 years now. If that were the end of this story, it would be a nice one. But it’s not.
In the absence of a cubicle I have filled every corner of our life with something: two months worth of houseguests every summer, and almost as many in the winter, incessant travel for work and play, book club, writing group, hosting 20 people for a fantasy football draft then a different 20 for a blog retreat. Years in a row. We’ve renovated two and a half houses and while The Gorilla has kept making movies I’ve been pushing myself every day to do everything better. I thought all this “busy” was honorable. I thought keeping our lives full was meaningful and a good steward of our resources.
Trying desperately to seize the day, in seven years I’ve almost never said No. To almost every opportunity presented and favor asked, I’ve accepted. I could never find a reason not to. Saying Yes, when I was in a position to do so, seemed like the right thing to do. But it wasn’t out of the goodness of my heart. I’m not so altruistic. I’ve been chasing achievement.
Lacking a measure of my worth in salary, I’ve run myself ragged trying to do more, more, more. I’ve crinkled my nose at messages that women should be more and do less. I beam at people saying “You guys have so much going on” the same way someone with an eating disorder craves praise for their skinny. When your mind is twisted about it, you don’t notice that the phrases are said too slowly, and with the tilted head of concern. Life is about the doing and I’ve preached it for years. And it has just about broken me.
Because there is no end to the achievement chasing. It’s all relative. What is financial success? If you make $100,000? $1,000,000? $10,000,000? Depends on who you ask. What is creative success? If your art is good enough to sell on etsy? Or at Barney’s? Again, depends on who you ask. What defines SuperMom? Magazine-worthy home and parties? Or well-behaved kids? Yes and no, neither and both. And, in terms of blogging, what defines you "making it?" If you earn a few bucks? If your traffic levels are huge? If you get a book deal? Yes, to all of that and to none of it. There is no legitimate outside barometer for anything when it comes to achievement, success, and, most of all, happiness.
I’m learning slowly and painfully that there is nothing on earth that you can physically do to make people like you, to make others believe you have it together, to make your spouse love you more or to control anyone else’s respect. Trying to do more than you can handle will make you and your family miserable. Trying to do more than you can handle for the wrong reasons could ruin your beautiful life.
If I type it enough times, I wonder if either of us will believe it? If there’s no way to prove that I’m doing a good job, what is my worth? It’s scary to accept finally that self-worth isn’t something visible on the outside, it’s not a finish line you can cross, or a box you can check. I don’t feel like my mantra of Do the Work is incorrect, but I’ve applied it across the whole spectrum of my life instead of just a few priorities, and that has been my mistake. I’ve chased achievement and applause right into the ground.
I didn’t want to post this, because it sounds like a big humble brag. Like when people pretend to apologize for being a perfectionist. But I’ve made myself miserable by chasing achievement and I wish I had heard from someone else in a similar position who would have told me to take it all down a notch. Actually, I did hear other women say that but I didn’t believe them (or I thought they were lazy), so now I’m saying it, hoping that you’ll believe me and not think I’m lazy. If you’re judging your own value by how much you’re doing, and how well you’re doing it, take a step back. You may be on your way to soul suicide.
There was a time in my life when I could see myself with a prestigious job with lots of power and an enviable paycheck. Instead, I became a housewife who writes. And my reality is so much better than what I used to picture. I just have to stop fighting against myself to see it.
photo by silvision via flickr