I Had It All, And I Was Miserable

I don’t feel like any less of a feminist because I have opted out of the rat race. I don’t feel less empowered because I don’t bring home a paycheck every week.

Tenacity is over-rated. In our society, we shower praise on people who will stop at nothing to achieve a given goal. I used to be tenacious in my approach to both education and career, accepting ready-made objectives like grade point averages and promotions as worthy objects of my focus.

Here’s the problem: Those goals were empty vessels for me. Like many people, I was so caught up in preconceived notions of what my career should be, of what my life should look like, that I was tenaciously pursuing goals that only had superficial value. I succeeded to a point, but at the cost of living with severe depression and anxiety.

I would have been better off with a lot less tenacity and a lot more self-preservation.

The goals I pursued were largely the product of outside influence, well-intended, but not at all related to my interests or passions. One of my most enduring memories of my mother is a conversation we had when I was in high school where she told me, her voice shaking in regret, that a woman could not expect to have a family and be successful in a career. A woman had to choose.

She spoke from her own experience. In the 1950s she had dropped out of a top journalism program after her junior year and married my father. She then had eight children. My mother loved her husband and her children, but she also would have loved that career. I believe she lived mourning her surrendered potential. The implication of her words to me was clear. Have the career. Do not lose focus.

I listened, less because I saw innate value in occupational success and more because I knew my mother was desperately unhappy in her life. I didn’t want to share her regrets.

Ironically, my journey would likely have turned out much better if I had also followed my mother and studied journalism. Writing was both my strength and my love. However, if I was going to be a feminist and choose career over family, I determined I would also break into a male-dominated field.

In a society where women are funneled away from subjects like math and science, I dug in my contrarian heels. Math is not my strength, but I worked extremely hard and graduated with a degree in economics and forged a career as a data analyst. I never really thought math and statistics were interesting, but I placed a premium on being a woman who held her own in that arena.

And once I started working, I quickly realized that my most valuable attribute was not any specific field of knowledge anyway. My calling card was that I got things done. I met deadlines other people wouldn’t or couldn’t make.

I worked double time if necessary to make sure the work was done well. If a project depended on the work of others, I bulldozed my colleagues to ensure they stayed on time and on task. In my tunnel vision, I only cared about the direct outcome of a project. I had little to no use for relationship building with my peers or supervisors.

At the time, I didn’t realize that my bosses were using me, content to let me play the bad guy, recognizing that my overpowering single-mindedness allowed them to reach their goals and collect their bonuses, even as it limited my career trajectory.

They kept increasing my responsibility, even past my tenacious limits. Rather than ask for help, I again dug in those contrarian heels, convincing myself that if I kept my head down, I could get through my to-do lists.

I got depressed and my ability to focus plummeted. Deadlines were looming and I knew I was not going to make them and colleagues who might have helped me instead rightly hated me and I fell apart and ended up being hospitalized in a psychiatric institution for several weeks.

You might think that would have forced me to reconsider my life trajectory, but again my perception was so limited that I could not conceive of doing anything but going back to work. I down-scaled my expectations some, found more compatible people to work with, but permanent change escaped me. I worked five more years and had two more breakdowns before finally understanding that the corporate environment did nothing but tear me down.

Why did it happen? In my younger years, I gave in to the pressures of society. Some girls lose themselves in worrying about issues of body image. I lost myself in the pressure to shed patriarchal notions around marriage and academic stereotypes that limit women.

My successes put me in positions to lead groups of people, something I had no idea how to do effectively. I certainly was not a woman who was afraid to be outspoken, but I tipped to the other end of the scale and bulldozed past people instead of building a team.

I am, of course, an extreme cautionary tale. Most people don’t end up in psychiatric facilities because they hate their job (and certainly there were many other reasons beyond work for my breakdowns). I think many who people lead content lives in jobs they don’t love have the perspective to compartmentalize work as the thing they must do to support the family and other interests that they love.

For years, I could not take that step back. I had completely bought in to notions that the key to my happiness was in fulfilling feminist paradigms instilled by mother and society at large. I assumed staying home with a family would be a waste of my potential. I convinced myself that settling for anything less than a technical, math-oriented career would reinforce outdated stereotypes. Using a light touch in negotiating with my colleagues would lead them to assume I could not be a strong leader as a woman.

But after years of struggle, my mental health finally demanded the step back.

I am now a part-time writer and a full-time mother. As is the case for all writers, that part of my life brings a lot of rejection. It’s hard to get published. Still, while I occasionally do get discouraged, I bounce back quickly because, for me, writing is not about accumulating long lists of prestigious publications, but about self-expression. The pieces I don’t sell mean as much to me as the ones I do.

As for the mothering? It’s interesting to me that the thing my mother least wanted for me is the part of my life that absolutely fulfills me. There aren’t many deadlines here—each day I try to help my son grow a little bit. The work itself is really just the drudgery of laundry and cleaning the toilet, but I mind it much less than creating spreadsheets and leading meetings—mostly because I am very clear about who I am doing the work for and very assured in the importance of my efforts.

I don’t feel like any less of a feminist because I have opted out of the rat race. I don’t feel less empowered because I don’t bring home a paycheck every week. In fact, I am a much stronger woman now that I don’t live in depression and anxiety, chasing a goal that was never worth pursuing.

Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her partner and son.

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