Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Oh, elusive fulfillment

I recently achieved exactly what I set out to do, and yet, here comes dissatisfaction. I can hear its footsteps around the corner.

I've always associated my identity with being a professional. Even my spare time was spent working on interesting theories or programs in my field. When I left the workforce for my first maternity leave at 34, it was the first time in my life that I didn't constantly feel the anxious little twangs and spasms that my body uses to remind me to stay on high alert. I was just here, with my son, accountable to no one else. It wasn't long before I mistook being relaxed for being bored (I still have a hard time telling them apart).

When my body relaxed a bit, my brain started feeling really uncomfortable. I felt disconnected from my profession, and I couldn't shake the nagging sense that I was slipping, stagnating, wasting precious career time. Even as I felt the value of the time with my son, the moments of pure joy and discovery were still fewer than the moments of monotony and drudgery. I found myself joking that I was a pretty expensive babysitter. I couldn't settle into it, and I started doing contract work when Blaise was 5 months old.

I decided to make a clean break and took a new job well before the end of my maternity leave, only to discover that I was pregnant within a week of starting. I'd hardly gotten back in, and I was off again, but this time with two. Caring for a baby that couldn't hold it's own head while herding a newly-walking toddler with no sense of danger was not the same experience as my first maternity leave. We stayed home a lot. I really started to notice that the moments of joy and discovery were outweighed by the drudgery, monotony and general difficulty of parenting two extremely young, and very intense, children. I decided that I just wasn't cut out for being a stay-at-home parent, so I started back to work when Sabine was 8 months old, 3 days a week.

My second return to work was a flop. My energy had never been so low, and the role itself was not emerging as having interesting projects. Eight months in, I flip-flopped my opinion, deciding that I simply wasn't engaged enough in the work to justify not being with the kids. I was optimistic - they were a bit older, both walking and talking - surely it would be more interesting to be home with them. I left my job. It was more interesting and slightly less exhausting, but I was not happy. I was restless, impatient, and felt prickly with resentment a lot of the time.

So now I was not feeling interested in the profession that had previously encompassed my identity, and not happy home with the kids, where my energy and life force felt constantly sucked dry. So I wondered if maybe I just hadn't found my calling - maybe I needed to serve the world to feel fulfilled. I decided to take some contract work 2 days a week when we fell short of money, but not to accept a job until I was able to feel like my work would make a difference in the world.

Within 6 months I'd achieved my goal - a role with a local non-profit focused on systemic-level poverty elimination initiatives, engaging the community using all the same skills I'd built in my previous career. I even negotiated a perfect week - 3.5 days for the family, 3.5 days for work. I have time with the kids, but it's not my whole life. I have work that adds value and keeps me at least moderately stimulated. The kids themselves are now really fun and interesting, despite the roller-coaster ride of emotions that comprise the days. Life is better. Overall, I'm happy.

But I feel it again - that same irritated dissatisfaction that starts chipping away at my energy and enthusiasm. This time, I think it's because of the story I feel compelled to create, the frustration when I lose clarity of ideas because I don't have time to capture them, and an almost physical pull to give more time to that project. But I've misdiagnosed before, and I'm cautious.

I have a strong suspicion that there is something else going on here. I'm restless and dissatisfied, despite my gratitude for the many moments of love and joy that belong to me on every single day. Is it the pull to write? Is it fear and disappointment of watching possibilities and potentials wither and close their pathways as I approach middle age with two small children in tow? Is it unresolved parent issues?

As my husband likes to say when diagnosing problems, "it's never one thing."

Maybe fulfillment isn't something to get so worked up about. If I find a way to calm the anxious seeking for life purpose, stop comparing (for real!), and enjoy riding the waves of my life, I'll be happier. Sometimes I achieve it. But there is always this nagging tug towards "purpose," "fulfillment," and, as I type those words, a third comes unbidden: "respect." Hmm.

I wish I had time for this level of self development!