Tuesday, February 8, 2011

un-f*** up your life

I am always claiming to have been lately coming to realizations. Sometimes when I look back on such claims, I find them dubious - yeah, I thought I was on the tip of a major apotheosis, but maybe I just had some bad cold cuts, you know? Because the immediately following weeks and months did not contain the progressive unfolding of my enlightenment, not even on that particular issue. Probably the same is true now. But, undaunted, I forge on.

First of all, one of the baseline assumptions of this meandering meditation is that infertility is really insidious. You knew this. Specifically: it isn't just a matter of some part of one's reproductive (or broader physiological) system that does not work. It isn't even just that these problems can drastically affect quality of life in other areas (I'm thinking of pain from endometriosis; trouble with diet and weight management from PCOS; numerous complications from cancer; dietary issues borne of Celiac Disease. I could go on. Lists like these remind me how evil IF is. I digress...).

It's that once there's a profound twisting of the healthy human organism in the single (if central) area of reproductive function, the steady forward progress of the healthy person gets twisted up around that. Sort of like how if you have a serious ambulatory injury (maybe a torn ACL), pretty soon you find yourself in therapy for bursitis, arthritis, carpal tunnel, sprains, and stretched ligaments - in the injured leg and the healthy one, plus probably both arms - because the one injury screws up how your whole body moves, and it's not designed to move without one part, and it starts to injure everything else. And your walk is unhealthy and ugly to boot.

My "walk" is unhealthy and ugly. It has been for a long time, and it gets slowly but steadily worse.

Now, I think a lot about how I'm unhappy, why I'm unhappy, and just how irritated I am by particular circumstances in life. In other words, I wallow. But despite my knee-jerk (and unhelpful) intellectualization of all my emotional issues, I rarely make any headway examining all these irritants and their greater implications. Let alone any solutions. But maybe that's starting to change?

The other day, I watched this video recommended by fabulous post-IF (no, not with babies!) blogger Pamela Jeanne. (Her blog has been a refuge and an inspiration for me when I just cannot deal with one more post that says, "Now that I'm little X's mommy, I understand God's plan of making me wait seventy years to have a child. It's all worth it when I squeeze X's little chubby cheeks!") The video was awesome and thought-provoking, even if Brene's research did not immediately answer all my nagging questions. More broadly, I immediately developed a craving to watch more videos. I wanted to watch nerdy Harvard psychology professors talk about the functioning of the human mind ten times more than I wanted to watch the latest episode of House on hulu (this is shocking). For some reason, I felt as though these people were talking to me. And I couldn't get enough of it.

I watched Martin Seligman on positive psychology. Then I watched Dan Gilbert on how happiness (in this case, more like satisfaction) is generated in our minds. These gentlemen are researchers - they're not operating from a spiritual perspective, so they aren't able to give me a purpose in life, or even suggestions on how to search for one. But they did start me off thinking about work.

Mr. Seligman explained that there are three modes of happiness: there's pleasure (enjoying your experiences); there's "flow" (I don't get the name, but it's sort of the quality of being lost in whatever it is you're doing - it captures your interest, and time races for you); and there's having a higher purpose (even if the activity is boring and not pleasurable, you know it has a greater meaning). People with high life satisfaction invariably have all of them, though the first turns out to be the least important. (You should watch the video for all the details.)

Sometimes a new way of phrasing something is eye-opening. This "flow" concept captivated me. Though I hated my previous job (which varied between abusively busy and not nearly busy enough, and manifested no respect for employees' personal lives), there were days when I would show up at work to find an "emergency" already underway, and spend the next twelve or fourteen hours running, sometimes without even time to eat. Legal research was due before I started it. Phone calls were convened in haste with a tone of hysteria. Meetings were fraught with panic, because the time I spent listening politely was time I couldn't spend working on my to-do list from the meeting, which my bosses were sort of hoping to have done as they walked back from the meeting to their offices. Frankly, a lot of the hours I spent during those days were either listening to other people talk to each other, or making copies, or formatting other people's documents. Not exalted work, and not enjoyable per se; but the hours rushed by. And while I would spend the late-evening hours of such days griping to my similarly-junior colleagues about the deadly day, I would secretly be harboring a feeling of euphoria: things had needed to be done, although some of them were silly things. And the odds that they could be accomplished at all were slim - but I accomplished them. My bosses' gratitude might not be effusive, might not even be stated, but I knew they knew I was indispensible.

I believe this is what Mr. Seligman means by "flow." Now, my current job doesn't have the abusive hours or the manufactured crises of my last job. But it rarely has that feeling of emergency, in which my labor is essential. And I think that might be the single thing I'm missing - because I've been saying for a long time that I can't fairly complain about a single thing about my job. All of the objective circumstances are great. I'm not satisfied, but it's not because the work I'm given is unpleasant. And I say it's because I don't sense a deeper meaning, but the mission of my employer is a good one and my work contributes to that in some way. If I wanted to jettison most of my salary, maybe I could work somewhere the mission was a really really good one, but most of those places aren't hiring anyway, and besides - I don't want to jettison most of my salary.

I've assumed for a while that the "deeper meaning" component was the problem, because the job was perfect when I was looking for something to do full-time until I got this IF business straightened out and had a kid(s); part-time between their birth and starting school; and full-time again thereafter (to save for college tuition, probably). And that's certainly part of the problem - I'm now turning to this job to find a purpose in life, something I never expected it to provide me when I started it. That's moving the goalposts in the middle of the game, and it's not fair.

It's also not easy to sneak into a conversation when a friend asks, "How's life?" Well, funny you should ask. Work's not bad, but I wanted children more than anything in the world, and now that I'm coming to grips with the fact that I can't ever have them, life has lost all purpose. If I died tomorrow rescuing a cat from a burning building, or just failed to wake up in the morning, that would seem entirely appropriate to me. How are things with you?

So now I'm looking at the problem being that maybe this job doesn't demand enough of me (or something sort of like that). But how do I balance wanting the job to demand enough of me to make the time disappear and wanting the job to have reasonable enough demands and hours that I am able to have a life after work? Is this possible? Is it pointless even to look for?

Then I watched that second video, which discusses the fact that we manufacture happiness to accomodate to what we actually have in life. This is clearly true and very evident in my own life. Not only do I rapidly decide that what I wanted is what I have, I have a policy of so doing and it's very explicit. I also tailor what I am going to want in advance according to other criteria (such as frugality), and I map out trade-offs in advance and declare the things I will thereby lose to be off the table for wanting or missing. Obviously, everyone does this, but Dr. Gilbert posits that most people don't realize they're doing it (or maybe it wouldn't work?). I do.

But what about the possibility that my dissatisfaction with various facets of my life is a product of my failure to apply the appropriate emotional discipline to my circumstances? I can certainly see this in my friends. I have friends who are always unhappy about their jobs (even when clearly there's nothing wrong with the job), and friends who are always positive and grateful about their jobs (even when those are clearly fraught with difficulties). Part of that is just what they say to other people who ask, maybe, but a lot of it's attitude. And a lot of it (watch the Gilbert video) is expectations. As mentioned above, I moved the goalposts after the train left the station (that's funny because I know it's a mixed metaphor), with predictably bad results.

That doesn't mean I know how to fix it.

Obviously, this (already long) musing is so far about work only. And part of the problem is that work is part of a much larger picture. But I've started dipping a toe in the water of thinking about that, too.

First, after I'd exhausted the fun videos, I wandered all over the web looking for resources for spouses of PTSD sufferers. There's very little there, but there's a book I'm picking up at the library tonight - will let you know if it's any good [update: it's terrible]. What I'm looking for is a compass - what should I expect? What's normal? What small things can I do to improve matters? What goals should I have? Again, I need to keep working on finding a therapist, too.

I started thinking of my and my DH's struggles in light of all these questions. We're just looking for a purpose in life. Because I can't have kids, I've invested too much in my job. I've also invested a lot of emotional energy in resenting people with families (even if I am generally kind to the individual fertile people I know - really, I am). I don't feel as though I can move home to real America because everyone there has families, and DINK couples are freakish and there's so little for us to do. And I don't want to be pitied. But I hate living in the city, in part because I associate it with the career I "have to" have because I don't have kids to keep me home. (I could look at this in terms of having more options, but does that sound like me?)

I also hate the city just because I hate cities in general. While I'm not gung-ho about moving to Denver (not enough IF bloggers in the immediate area, according to my little survey - ha!), we tripped over the notion of moving to rural Massachusetts the other day, and my heart skipped a beat. I want to move to a village in Massachusetts TOMORROW. That sounds like the best thing in the whole wide world (to me. Places are not for everyone; they are for people. I belong in rural New England and I always have). That's where I want to live. There are all the small problems of not having friends there...and not having jobs there...and the dioceses being questionable. Some of these problems might solve themselves in the long-term - I think the work force is headed more and more toward telecommuting, and I suspect eventually I'll be able to work my job from the moon. So maybe...the solution is just to keep marching in place, which I'm already doing, but which does not feel like a solution.

Then there's the fact that my DH is so miserable with his job. He's actually in the middle of a job search, so I have been trying hard to keep the faith that by this spring, he will have found a new position and it will be one that he really likes. That would make such a difference in our quality of life I can't even tell you.

And there's the fact that he, like me, is searching not so much for job satisfaction, as for a broader purpose. In the original framework in which I (despite my fantastic marketable skills - ha) would be unable to work because I was taking care of small people, he would be taking care of us - providing for his family, supporting me, and coming out way ahead in the balance, despite the fact that for a few years there, I had a job and he didn't. Has that happened? No. In fact, I make more than he does, and while that doesn't bother him in the way it would some men, it does mean I'm not dependent on him for anything material. He's not actually accomplishing anything by his daily labor, in the grander scheme of things.

That's crap, and I don't know why it took me so long to see that. It's why he's striking out trying to get another degree or a different type of job or live in a different place or change the game in some way. And it's why he wants me to quit working and get another degree, even though it's obvious to me that that would be financially pointless. If he has to work three jobs so that I can work less and do something that would make me happy, he would do it (he has said so). In fact, I think he would enjoy it. But I'm the prudent one, and as long as there's no reason I can't work, I think I should earn a salary and build savings and pay down debt. My perspective needs no explanation. But his is frankly the more compelling one, since, in my own particular way, I have the same motivations he does: I want my daily life to give me the reasons for living of which I feel I have been robbed by infertility.

I don't have answers to all of these questions, regrettably. Both my DH and I share the temptation (though only he would act on it) to check out of the game altogether: quit the whole responsible citizen gig and move somewhere exotic and, if not literally live off the land, at least something more like that. No 9-to-5, and no suburbia with playgrounds and soccer practice, and no unattainable American dream.

And while I don't think that necessarily is the solution for us in the short term, I think I need to give that way of thinking more of a chance, and see what it can teach me about what my options really need to be. I am terrified to leave a situation in which our bottom line is slowly but steadily improving, and we have people to see, a roof over our heads, and food on the table. But how much is that worth when we're this unhappy?


  1. When I changed schools three years ago it made a world of difference! I hated my job, my principal and I know that it affected me in the classroom. Mr JB tells me all the time how much happier I am, despite my job being more challenging (which was the case when I started teaching grade one!).

    But I was lucky. My skills as a teacher that speaks French are very desireable. I was able to go to a new school that was geographically more convenient. My salary didn't change. The biggest adjustment was that I had to drive myself to work.

    I hope that your husband's job search brings him something that is equally fulfilling and compensates him well! I don't know if that will make everything better, but a happy husband usually guarantees a relatively happy life.

  2. I've found that the inability to have children does seem to make me question or focus on my choice of a career and the way I live my life in general. Instead of choosing a job that I'd like the best, I find myself wondering which job would be most fulfilling - and it's specifically that I'm looking for a career to fill the gap where a child would be. I wonder if it's really necessary, though, and if it's possible or even better to just live a life that will bring the most happiness. I hope that whatever the answer is for you, that you're able to find it.

  3. Wow. I'm always amazed at how self-aware you are. You definitely understand a lot about what makes you tick and now you're having another revelation about what makes your husband tick.
    A lot of people are perfectly happy with jobs that aren't fulfilling, because their personal life is so fulfilling it fills that gap. That was one of the reasons I hated my job so much. Not just because it sucked, but because it was so much the opposite of the life I wanted to live as a wife and mother that every day I spent at my desk became so much more demoralizing and depressing.
    For us, me quitting meant we lost a huge chunk of money (hubby made up 1/2 of it by going back to school and getting paid by VA), but even though it was more pressure on my husband as the sole wage-earner, he became much more confident in his ability to provide afterward, as well as much happier at home (since he now had a wife to care for the house and cook and he didn't have to ALSO worry about those things).
    I would definitely never recommend people leave financial security for the unknown...but on the other hand, if you have an opportunity to experience life in a different way, even for a short while, I would say it's worth looking into!

  4. XXX
    What EC said (above) makes sense to me.
    I wish I could contribute something useful here. :(