The babies’ mom.

I grew up middle class. We didn’t always have the money to match the label, but the values were solidly in the Great American Middle: Do your best, help others, dream dreams, believe in yourself. Work hard.

The oft stated, and always implied, corollary — at home, at school, in books, on the street, in casual conversation, everywhere, always — was never-wavering: If you apply yourself and plow ahead, You Can Be Anything You Want To Be.

And I have done that. I have done my best, always. I have helped others. I have dreamt dreams — though I will admit that they have been small. I have believed in myself, my skills, and my worth to the broader world. And I have worked damn hard.

But I am not anywhere near where I want to be — and I am (talk about the middle) 45 years old.

I rush to clarify: I speak only of my professional life. In my personal life, I hit the jackpot. Married to one of the best people I’ve ever met, mother to two of the others, living in a warm community and warmer home, both of which are marked by laughter and love and good conversation. I am so blessed, there are no words — at least none that are adequate to the task.

But, as a member of the highly educated, feminist-minded middle class, I came up not wanting just those things — those wonderous things — but also to work in a profession that meant something to me, and to which I had something to contribute. It was an unspoken assumption that while I might not get rich, I would surely be able to pay my bills with my natural talent and responsible work ethic.

LOL! As the kids say.

Here was my dream: To make a living by writing, with most of the work I produce going out under my own name.

And ta-daa! Here I am. Last September, after about 20 years of struggling in print media (with a three-year break for graduate school), I gave up on having my name on anything (the occasional signed book review that I still produce not being the result of any effort on my part, but rather the fruit of a relationship with an editor who is a truly peachy guy, and who, not incidentally, still has a budget).

And now, tonight, I am on the literal eve of my last day on retainer with a nonprofit for which I’ve worked since 2004. It’s a good-news story, really, in that small non-profit A is being absorbed by larger, more efficient nonprofit B, to the benefit of all — except me. Though I still do the occasional bit and/or bob of work for other organizations, I’m mostly just scrambling to find anyone who will hire me, at all.

These are first-world, luxury troubles of the first order. My husband is a software engineer — the metaphorical blacksmith of his day — and we are not ever going to go hungry. I have health insurance, and my children are whole and strong.

But there is something so painful, so essentially wrenching, to realizing that the one thing I wanted — the thing I was led to believe was not only possible but deserved — is not to be. (But I was led to believe…!)

There are things I could have done differently (probably many things). I could have come back to the US earlier. I could have skipped graduate school. I could have chosen not to work part-time and from home after my children were born. At any point, I could have gone for a salaried job rather than freelance. There are many, many outside forces that factor in my current predicament (just ask anyone recently laid off from a newspaper job), but I am not blameless in my failure to achieve what I want.

And the bottom line is just that: I have failed. I have failed to achieve what I worked for 20 years to achieve, and there’s really no point in pretending otherwise. And I am tapped out and broken. There is nothing left in me to try to find some new way, some new system, to make a go of it. I’m looking into teaching and museum work and writing for more nonprofits and PR firms and any number of other worthy directions, but Emily L. Hauser, wielder of pen and the truth? Short of a miracle of good will and good fortune falling in my lap, that’s apparently done.

And so (FINALLY) we come to my point:

How do I model this experience — this: I’m-middle-aged-and-not-getting-what-I-want, this: I-feel-sorry-for-myself-but-that-won’t-change-the-facts, this: no-one-told-me-that-working-hard-isn’t-always-enough — for my children?

I want to find a place of grace and acceptance (I want to not feel sorry for myself). I want to help them aspire, and yet prepare them for the possibility that they won’t succeed. I want to be hopeful but realistic, realistic but not fatalistic, loving and giving and not nearly as cheerless as I have been. So now, this is my struggle.

Something will happen. I have no idea what, but a cursory glance at human history and some basic math indicates that the sun will rise, the sun will set, and eventually, two + two will = a paycheck. I will figure something out.

But how I live my life between now and then, how mommy manages this transition, how I move forward, and the extent to which these changes do, or do not, affect my kids’ lives — that will be a lesson that they carry with them, as surely as I carried the assumption that hard work was all I needed.

I wasn’t able to get the career I wanted.

But meh — neither have a lot of people. What really matters is that I get the not-getting-it right.

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6 Comments

  1. Well, you and I are in the same boat. I am not the successful science fiction writer I once wanted to be. Heck, past commenting and blogging, I write nothing.

    But… I do have those things.

    I think what you’re experiencing is not “failure” in the truest sense. You have not achieved what you set out to achieve, but that does not mean it is unachievable. It simply means that the conventional route you took, the one prescribed by everyone, did not work. I know the feeling: my parents and teachers taught me that if I worked hard, went to college, got a degree, I would get any job I wanted. Well, that may have been true in the 50’s or even 60’s, but the world of the 80’s and 90’s was a different story. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a computer programmer, I make good money, have a wife and kids and a home, but I, too, feel like true “success” has eluded me.

    Because I’m focused on the wrong thing.

    Everyone’s goal should be to live a good life; past that, anything else you accomplish is icing on the cake, and it takes the pressure off, because there is no greater goal than that. You build your life to where you are comfortable, where you feel like you have the things you want, where life is not so much a struggle, and once you’ve established that (no mean feat in this day-and-age), anything else is possible given time. And you have time… fatalism is a disease of our age, where everyone runs and runs, trying to do everything as if they will die tomorrow, to the point that they do not stop and appreciate the life they have.

    So, you’ve reached this point, and you are not the success you planned on being. So what? You still have time, and if you use it right, you can still achieve your goals. Start small. Build on successes. If it takes another 30 years, so be it; it will keep you engaged, give you something to drive yourself. In essence, it will keep you from getting old. And you will show your kids the most important lesson — that if you believe in something, no amount of time and effort is wasted, so long as you are doing what you enjoy. It is true: life is about the journey, not the destination.

  2. Whenever I get to the place you are in I always think of this song. Continue to write. You do it well. Something will come your way. I think you may be surprised at how this develops if you leave yourself open and ready to seize opportunity, however unlikely it may appear at the time.

  3. La Chica Lucy

     /  December 10, 2009

    Oh, man, I so feel you on this. I lived my dream of making a living as a writer for 12 years and I now toil as a freaking civil servant – the LAST thing I would’ve imagined for my future. I guess the one thing that keeps me going is knowing that at least I was able to live that dream for a good chunk of time – not everyone does. And I’m still freelancing with my local rag – and I while I don’t really enjoy the assignments (there is only SO MUCH one can write about weddings and home improvement) and could never live on the pittance they toss my way, at least I’m keeping my chops up.

    I enjoy reading you – I know that doesn’t send a damn dime your way, but at least your voice is out there and is being heard and appreciated! And everything Newt said, too!

  4. Paul in KY

     /  December 11, 2009

    Paid writer or not, I think you’re a success. To me, your greatest successes (or failures, although I don’t think or hope that will happen in your case) will be how your children turn out. What kind of citizens they end up being.

  5. Oh, you have hit a nerve with this post. Although most of my failures are of my own making, I can relate to the ‘I am not going to be what I thought I would be’ feeling you’re experiencing right now. I have no bromides to offer you, no platitudes, because unlike you, I never thought I could be anything I wanted to be. In fact, my recent struggles are with realizing that I can be MORE than I thought I could be. Like you, I write. I have the problem that my writing (fiction) doesn’t fit any preexisting niche. In addition, I used to perform, and I would like to get back to that.

    However. I would just like to say that you have a clarity and a poetry in your writing that deserves to be read by others. I have never had the belief that I could do things the traditional way, so I am looking at alternate routes to achieve my dreams. In regards to your last sentence, I would add, not yet, anyway. I know you’re tired and worn-out from struggling with getting your writing career off the ground (and with other things, of course), but after you mourn the loss of the traditional route (and you will have to mourn it), I think you might be able to take a different view of the road before you.

  6. P.S. I saw you getting a shout-out on the front page of BJ, and I was so happy for you, despite the somber subject, because you so deserve it.