Written by Sarah, a former graduate wife
When I graduated from my dual MA program in history and public policy, I felt relieved. All the hard work and sacrifice of three years of intense study was over and I had achieved a major life goal. I also felt relieved for another reason; unlike many of my fellow students who were experiencing the stress of finding jobs in the midst of a recession, I knew exactly what I would be doing for the next few months.
Right at the end of my time in graduate school, I got pregnant. To say this was “not the plan” would be misleading since I really didn’t have a plan. I was married and we intended to start a family “sometime soon.” Like many other women my age, I assumed that eventually I would have both a fulfilling career and a family, but I was always a little fuzzy on what would come first, whether I’d work on these things at the same time or stagger them. So when it came time to look for that first job out of graduate school, I was relieved to have the immediate decision made for me. In one month, I would give birth and there was no way that I could reasonably expect an employer to be interested in an 8-months pregnant graduate.
Still, I told everyone who asked (professors, friends, family), “I plan to stay home at first and see how I like it and then I will look for a job depending on how I adapt to being at home.” I assumed that there was a good chance I would be bored and miserable staying home full-time and that I would long to get right out and “use” the degrees I had worked so hard to earn. I also didn’t see myself as the “staying at home type”, someone I envisioned as having always longed to be a mother and homemaker. Since well before college, I had envisioned a career that would change the world. I hoped I would eventually have some kind of important position where I made a significant impact in education, social justice, or politics.
Three years later, I am still a stay-at-home mom, now with a new baby and a toddler. One of the biggest surprises of my life is that I enjoy staying at home. For the first year, I struggled with serious identity confusion. I loved being a mother, but where was the woman I had been, that all my friends and professors knew? A lot of things hadn’t changed (my basic personality, the types of issues that interest me) but many things had. Every time I considered a potential job, my dread would grow. How could I leave my child at home to pursue an entry-level job that might or might not be fulfilling? Finally, I accepted that my immediate dreams and priorities had changed. For the first time since graduating from college, I knew exactly where I was needed most and it felt really good.
I still don’t love housework or all aspects of childcare and I certainly would never want to do those things for a job in anyone else’s home, but still, most days I feel challenged and yet completely sure of my calling. For this season, I belong at home with my children. I now see my life as made up of seasons in which I might focus on one dream or another. I can envision a general calling for my whole life (the things that I am passionate about, my roles as wife and mother, my faith) and specific seasons when I respond by focusing on certain roles.
Initially, I had to let go of a serious feeling of obligation to myself, my spouse, my former professors, even to society, a feeling that I ought to use my degrees now that I had earned them. I still have days where I worry about this gamble I’ve taken, trading in what should have been the early years of my career to focus on my family. Will I look back in ten years and wish I had chosen differently? To bolster my self-esteem, I seek out women who at one time took time out from their careers and who later became successful in their professions. There are many more than most people realize. Their examples give me hope that someday, when I’m ready, I too will make a successful transition into meaningful work outside the home.
The main way I cope with worries about the future is by celebrating how secure I feel in my identity and choices. I used to think that once I was done with graduate school I would be the person I longed to be, the one who would change the world in some amazing professional role. Now I see that by cultivating a secure personal identity, I continue to grow into someone prepared to make a significant impact at any time, whether in the home or outside it.
Have you had to let go of a dream for a season? How has the process affected your identity?