A new Meijer’s store opened in my town not that long ago. I live in a suburb primarily comprised of cornfields that is sandwiched on all sides by other more developed suburbs. It’s only been in the last decade or so that we’ve gotten some good local shopping. For the most part, you have to make a 5-10 mile journey east or west to get what you want.
I hadn’t visited the store more than twice when I found myself wandering up and down the aisles a little over a month ago. I was in need of several things, mostly food, snacks, and random Halloween décor. We have an annual party I was preparing for.
A few minutes in, after grabbing the deodorant I needed from the first group of shelves by the door, I caught myself doing what I have done for the last 17 years: checking my list, which is organized by type of item (food, household, personal, etc.), and figuring out which made the most logical sense to get next. The closest section would be the next stop, then the next closest and so forth until I was done. When I shopped, I went nowhere I absolutely didn’t need.
It was then I had an epiphany. As I stood there looking at the list contemplating which way to push my cart, I realized that for the first time in gosh, I honestly couldn’t remember, I didn’t have to shop with a plan. I wasn’t on a fixed schedule like I have always been, one so precisely fine-tuned that it literally meant parking in a strategic place so that when I entered and exited, I had saved as much time as possible.
I didn’t have all day to shop, no. But for the first time, I reveled I didn’t have to rush. I actually smiled and quietly laughed out loud as I put the list away.
I then made a hard right with my cart and went all the way to the furthest wall. There were coolers and foldable chairs followed by camping things and then brooms and all kinds of stuff I had absolutely no need for. I didn’t care. I slowly moseyed down the isle admiring the neatness of the displays and the newness of the products and the store. I looked down all of the aisles to my left and familiarized myself with the location of things I might some day need. I now know exactly where the light bulbs are.
I made it to the back and spent some time in the holiday décor. That was followed by a few minutes checking out the office supply area…I’m always a sucker for nice pens, new highlighters, and file folders…and then scooted over on a diagonal to the kids’ shoes and clothing. After that, it was off to the book section where I scanned the magazine covers and checked out the new best sellers. For a moment, as I always do, I envisioned my own book on one of the shelves some day.
This is going to sound a little ridiculous, but I hadn’t been that happy in a long time. The reality of what I was now able to do and why was sinking in with each step, and with each one, it made me happier. I’m not kidding; I almost started to cry, although, no, I didn’t.
When I finally got to the food aisles, like the others, I took my time going up and down each one. I made careful notes of the sales and the brands they carried, and I even stopped to read some of the product labels I didn’t recognize. It was then I heard a familiar voice.
“Well, hello you!” said my mother coming towards me with her cart. “Fancy seeing you here!”
It was kismet. I knew it. And I looked to the heavens with a shake of my head at the marvel that is the power of the universe.
I run into my mother in the most random places, and always when I need her most. I’m serious. Like the time I caught the flu, and it decided to manifest while I was in the movie theater. I ran to the bathroom right after the movie started and spent the rest of it puking my guts out.
But sure enough, right as I walked in, there was my mom with her group of friends. They were there to see another movie, but she stayed with me the rest of the time instead, holding my hair and making sure someone went to get my husband. If that’s not kismet, and love, I don’t know what is.
We talked for a few minutes and she could tell I was strangely happy for being at a grocery store. She asked why I was in such a good mood.
“Because I can just shop,” I said with a deep breath and sincere smile. “I can actually take…my…time.” More tears started to well in my eyes. I stopped them again. And mom knew exactly why they were there.
Now like I said, this may all seem a bit ridiculous, but it’s not. This was the emotional result of years and years of trying to be it all, do it all, have it all, and hold it all together…some of it self-inflicted, most of it not…and finally being brave enough and lucky enough to say, “ENOUGH.”
Less than three months before, I had upped and quit my job. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly, and until this moment in Meijer’s, I had worried tremendously that I had made a monumental mistake. For the truth was, I hadn’t just quit my job. I had pretty much just left my career.
I was a high school teacher for 17 years. I spent most of that time at a school I loved. During that time I had obtained not one, but two master’s degrees in education. I had just become a certified administrator and had spent the year as the Fine Arts Department Chair.
My principal and former professors believed in me tremendously. I was being recruited for more serious positions, a few former colleagues asking me to apply to be their principal at a different school. By and large, I had options. Lots of them. And I was at the precise age that I should be making that move.
I also loved my job, not to mention I was good at. Teaching came as naturally to me as breathing. I loved what I did, where I did it, with whom I worked, and the kids that I taught. Although it was an absolutely exhausting job, when I entered my room and started a class, I never felt more alive or home. The idea of leaving that, one of the few areas of my life where I was absolutely certain of whom I was was terrifying.
But I wasn’t ready to be an administrator. I knew that for sure. I have this annoying habit of always thinking I can do things better on a much larger scale than most people want to attempt. I’m in disarray about the current state of public education. From teacher evaluation to the Common Core to funding, the politics of it break my heart. I know we’re doing it wrong. And I know how we can fix it. I just don’t have that kind of time or energy right now.
For you see, my family needs me. They have needed me. And more important, I have needed them. In spite of the fact that I have been fortunate to have many summers off and time here and there after they were born to be home, teaching full time made it impossible to be the kind of mother or person I wanted to be.
Like many working moms, I got up every day at 5 a.m. After making lunches, feeding the dog, getting dressed in the dark (many times in mismatched clothes and shoes…true story), I left at 6:30 in the morning. This was well before my kids were even awake.
On a good day, one spent almost entirely on my feet with approximately 150 teenagers, I barely made it in the door by 4:30. That was followed by a mad rush to get one child to the next activity, an effort to get a decent dinner on the table, a load of laundry folded or put in if I was lucky, maybe the mail gone through, the dog walked, school papers looked at and signed, and the breakfast dishes finally put in the dishwasher…even though it was 6 o’clock at night.
After that, there were dinner dishes to do, a floor to be swept, errands to be run, another child to be picked up, bills to be paid and filed, baths and showers to monitor, 20 minutes of reading with the youngest two, and most nights, school work to do, my children’s and then my own. By 9pm, I was lucky to have changed out of my teaching clothes. Work out? Maybe Saturday after piano, bowling, and soccer. And oh yeah, more grading, laundry, and cleaning, God forbid we have some other obligation.
I lived my life by the minute. I knew that if the last bell rang at 3:05, that meant I could get out to my car by 3:18, which meant I’d be able to get to my town by 4:02 (barring any traffic), which gave me 10 minutes to run in and grab milk so that I could be home by 4:22 to get my youngest to the dance studio by 4:30.
I’d have to call her from the car at 4:05 and help her find her ballet shoes and outfit, and probably get in an argument as she stressed out about why it wasn’t where I said it was…because crap, I forgot I left it in the washing machine…and now what was she going to do?
This was my life. Putting out one fire after the next while at the same time trying extremely hard not to start them in the first place. Crossing off the days and the “To Do” list, holding it together just long enough to make it to the next free day, a myth that was really just a day used to catch up. No day was actually ever free.
Even teaching part time made life difficult. I believe, after 8 years of doing it, it is actually much harder. You’re never truly at work or truly at home. As a result, everything is half-ass.
And that’s precisely what was wrong when I decided to write my letter of resignation. After 17 years of being a working mother and wife, trying to have it all, do it all, and be it all, everything in my life was half-ass. Everything.
From my work out routine, to the cleanliness, appearance, and organization of my home, to my affected child’s therapies, to my teaching, to my hair that I would always let grow way too long before getting it done, to the way I cooked a meal. Everything was modified to get the job done on the most basic of levels and fastest of time frames.
To be sure, it was. I have always been very capable of getting things done. It wasn’t like my life or home was utter chaos. It was just that nothing I was doing or that I really cared about felt like it was being done well. Nothing. And I certainly wasn’t enjoying any of it.
It left me empty, sad, and exhausted. It also left me angry and resentful. Anyone I perceived giving me more to do had better watch out. When your cup is already full, even one more drip can send you over the edge.
An extra phone call I hadn’t expected. A night of religious education I forgot to put on the calendar. The field trip form my son just handed me at 6:25 a.m. that needed to have $8.35 cash today or he couldn’t go. Anything like that could set me off. And God help the person in my way when it happened, inevitably my husband or one of my children...which would then toss me into guilt, the other unhealthy emotion I was usually bathing in.
To make matters worse, my marriage was in shambles. We had separated not once, but twice in the two years prior. As of March, I had met with an attorney. It was as close as you could get to divorce without it happening when we both decided we had more work to do. Part of that work was making real changes. We had talked the talk for a long time. It was time to walk the walk.
Even though our story seemed like a story-book fantasy in some respects…college sweethearts get married and go on to have a beautiful family and successful careers…underneath, there was a lot more going on that made it extremely difficult.
We started with an unexpected pregnancy. That was followed by autism. Then we lost our life savings in the housing crisis. That was followed by job losses and desperate decisions that ended with bad results. Depression took us both over at different points. Alcohol got abused. And all of it was happening while both of us were working, going to grad school, parenting 3 kids, helping out in the community, volunteering at our church, and advocating in one of the most controversial issues out there.
Was it any wonder we were falling apart?
I knew that if we were serious about making this right once and for all, we had to do something drastic. We needed to be in the best mental and emotional shape of our lives if we were going to save ourselves. We were sick as a couple, individually and collectively. It was time to get healthy.
As I walked among the Red Cliffs on our vacation out west in July, I had to face what I had known for some time that I didn’t want to be true: being a working mom was making me miserable. Unlike so many other women who seemed to do it so well, I just couldn’t do it anymore. That was my truth. And that was something that we were finally in a financial position to fix.
But it wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t just working that made me miserable. I loved my job. It was teaching AND cleaning AND cooking AND commuting AND mothering AND volunteering AND advocating AND activities AND all of the other responsibilities I had to meet in combination that were making me miserable. (Even with a cleaning lady once in a while and even with my husband’s tremendous help.)
I had done it as brilliantly as any woman my age in my situation that I knew of for almost two decades, and yet I was dying inside because of it. I knew I had to take a break to save myself, as hard as it was going to be. I also knew that there was no hope in saving our marriage without saving myself first.
After vacation I came home and crafted my resignation. I sat on it for a week, paralyzed by what to do. The magnitude of this decision was hard to process. My salary had paid for college tuition plans and took us on great vacations. It provided a cushion. Plus, I had never NOT worked. I had never NOT had my own thing to rely on…just in case.
Giving up my job was relinquishing our financial fate to my husband, the very man I had just almost divorced in part because of his financial decisions. Had I lost my mind? I wondered.
And yet, something inside of me knew that fully relying on my husband for the first time was exactly what we had to do to save this. All this time, we had a back up plan without even realizing it. Maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe living like just-in-case-things-don’t-work-out is exactly why sometimes things don’t.
After several sleepless anxiety-filled nights, one where I found myself on the bathroom floor crying, I suddenly realized the point of a book I had never liked: Eat. Pray. Love. It’s the true story of writer Elizabeth Gilbert ending her marriage and going off to spend a year in different countries trying to figure out what to do next.
I had always found the story annoying and un-relatable. Beautiful woman with a doting husband living an amazing life in New York without kids decides to leave her husband and gets a book deal to go write about her year around the world because of it? Puh-leeze! This is a story? I want her life!
I could think of hell of a lot worse than what she had gone through, some of it myself. I found the drama of her plight ridiculous for the reality of all it was. She fell out of love with her husband. Big deal.
And yet finding myself sitting on the bathroom floor, just like she had, I finally got it. It wasn’t about the situation that led you to the bathroom floor. It wasn’t a contest to see who had the worst story or who was justified or who had earned the right to be on that floor. Lots of people probably thought I hadn’t either.
It was about being brave enough to do something about it when you got there. It didn’t matter if other women in far worse situations would ever have the chance to take a “time out” like I did, something that really troubled me. It didn’t matter if people thought I was making a mistake. It didn’t matter if anyone thought I was being lazy or spoiled or dramatic or entitled or stupid or anything.
It only mattered what I thought. It only mattered what I knew to be true. I could either continue to live a life that was slowly erasing my dreams, my joy, my marriage, and myself, or I could take a leap of faith and jump towards a new life that could make me happy and whole.
I had heard that when you are most afraid to jump is exactly when you should. I decided right then to jump. The day before I sent in my resignation while at my parent’s lake house, I literally made my husband hold my hand and run off the end of the pier, symbolizing the jump we were taking together into a new, better life.
The next day, after I pressed send, I held my breath and had a mini-melt down as I wondered terrified what I had just done. I sat in my chair wide eyed and crying just waiting for the phone to ring. I was going to have some explaining to do.
Outside of people I absolutely had to talk to, I refused to take any phone calls. Many had worried something had happened or that I was secretly becoming a principal elsewhere. Everyone wanted to know the “real story”. The idea I was leaving my career to stay home now seemed insane. I decided it was best not to have those conversations to the greatest extent possible.
The reality of the decision didn’t hit me until Meijer’s, but I knew within a few days, I had probably made the right one. The tightness in my chest gearing up for the back-to-school process dissipated. The adrenaline that coursed through my veins for two decades started gradually going away. My sleep got better. My attitude got better. And I could breathe. For the first time in so long, I could breathe.
Mom knew all of this as she looked at me in the aisle trying not to cry. She knew how much I had agonized over my career, my marriage, my life, our family, my daughter, and everything that had led me to this point. And she, more than anyone, had encouraged me in this moment to follow my heart.
Where most people I confided in saw merely it as a decision between an extra income and an opportunity “not to work”, she knew it was so much more than that. This was about reclaiming my life, deciding to live the type and pace of life I had always wanted, or continuing to experience a life I didn’t. And as she reminded me when I told her about my 3:05 schedule, I hadn’t even really been living. I had been surviving.
She was right. I had survived. A lot. Things that would have broken other people, I had not only survived, but also flourished. I get that, and I’m proud of myself. But I was exhausted and beaten down as a result.
It’s taken a few months, but I finally feel like my life is getting back in order. I have cleaned out all of the cabinets, closets, and drawers of my home I never had time to before. I organized the garage and am currently working on the basement. I started cooking real meals and all of the piles that used to be all over the place have been filed and put away.
I signed up to volunteer for my youngest daughter’s classes. The younger moms look at me like I have two heads when I tell them I left my career at this point in my life. Lots of people do. I think they think I have it all backwards.
But as far as I can tell, for me, I finally have it right. I am no longer reacting to the needs of my life, but rather creating the life I want. More important, I am calmer. Happier. Nicer. I smile more. I do my hair and make up, and I take my time when I do them. I actually feel like having sex now. And in spite of the worry I had about not having my income, all kinds of opportunities have presented themselves to me out of nowhere. It’s amazing how that happens.
To be sure, I know myself. I am always looking for the next thing to add to my resume, and I have hopes and dreams and goals as big as my house. The day will come, whether it be next year or the year after that, or heck, maybe even five years from now that I ache to go back to having 5 jobs instead of 4.
But for now, I am reveling in the ability to just have the time and peace and space to not even worry about it. A mid-life “time out”. The scariest and best place I have ever put myself by far.
Mom and I wrapped up our conversation and started to push our carts in different directions. As I leaned over to give her a kiss good-bye, she smiled and said, “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
For the first time in forever, I could smile back and mean it when I said, “Don’t worry. I will.”
But not before I walked every last aisle of that store.