I teach occasionally at my Alma Mater and the other day I received an email announcement from the Department congratulating a former graduate student on a big promotion in his job with a major pharmaceutical company. This guy was in grad school with me and got his PhD around the same time as I did. He’s a great guy and I share in the pride of our department at his accomplishments. As the email said, we like to see our graduates do well in the world.
But in reading this announcement I couldn’t help but wonder if my career constituted something the department could be proud of. I thought about where I would be now if I hadn’t left my career path to be a stay-home mother. Despite the fact that I don’t regret my choices one bit, I am conscious of the fact that my choices don’t make me appear “successful” in the way our society usually defines it.
In the book Simple Living: one couple’s search for a better life, Frank Levering describes how he felt a few years after he left Hollywood with his wife to run the family orchard business in rural Virginia, and would hear through the grapevine of old colleagues working their way up the career ladder:
“Though he had voluntarily traded wingtips for workboots, asphalt for black soil, the mind does not so easily substitute new patterns of thinking for old ones. There was keen envy when a close friend in Los Angeles called to announce his new job as a film executive at Disney. There were Frank’s older siblings, among them three Ph.D’s with academic careers whose visits never failed to evoke his parents’ pride and approval.”
I really related to this sentiment, although in comparison to Frank I’d already achieved a few milestones of success before leaving my career. I’d gotten that PhD and completed a successful post-doctoral fellowship under a highly respected and admired mentor. There was little doubt in anybody’s mind that, at the time I left, the only direction ahead for my career was upwards. Yet still I’m aware that, in the world of academia, success is defined in terms of promotions, grants, and tenure. I left all that for the humble role of Mother, and I think there are some who wonder what to make of me for that. While I know my old teachers are pleased with me (and grateful for my teaching assistance), my accomplishments don’t lend themselves as readily to celebratory annoucements as those of my big pharma colleague.
The sad truth is that Western society defines success in terms of profession, income, and possessions. I’ve got enough of these under my belt that I can dodge the issue of whether what I’m doing with my life now counts as “success”. I can speak the proper code words and leave one with the impression that I’ve achieved success in Western terms. But I say these things with a trace of irony because, while I’m proud of my accomplishments, I realize now how little they mean in terms of true success. Simple living is about recognizing the fallacy of these variables as any indicator of happiness, satisfaction, or contentment with one’s life.
For example, as a parent I’m repeatedly reminded that the ultimate goal for my children should apparently be sending them to college. I can’t tell you the number of people who ask if I’m saving for their education, as if no parent in their right mind would not place this high on their list of desires for their children. Me, I want my children to be happy and fulfilled, with solid healthy relationships around them. I could care less if they are a doctor or if they quit college to become a woodworker, so long as they are truly happy. To me, the ultimate gift I can give my children is not a college fund (though, admittedly, they’ll have one thanks to my father) but instead the gift of freedom – to be who they want to be and to find happiness on their own paths. If they can do that, then I’ll have truly succeeded in my career.