When I grow up

What do you want to be when you grow up?”. It’s a question to which my answers were once so confidently forthcoming. (Farmer! Writer! Einstein! Astronaut! Scientist!). I used to wonder when that magic moment of being “grown up” would arrive. At first, I thought it’d be when I graduated university. But what arrived was, mainly, a paralyzing fear. Maybe a PhD would do the trick? Or getting a proper job?  Or, buying my own house? Forward to today. I’m a 37-year old, self employed wife and mother and still waiting for that elusive moment to arrive.

A few weeks before our high-school graduation, we received some career advice from the teachers that knew us best. Our group of 8 was the strongest of the year (academically speaking), so they didn’t put much effort in evaluating us. The teacher said: “Anyone in this class is capable of undertaking any university degree and career they desire.” Then she looked at her note, and corrected herself: “Oh, except for you Dr.Pew!”. She pointed at me. “We strongly advise you to avoid any degree with a heavy physics component, as we feel this is above your capabilities.” The only response this type of statement could and did generate, was that I very decidedly went to enroll myself in a Physics degree, despite having had no inclinations to do so prior. In fact, I had absolutely grown to loathe Physics by then. But I guess I resented being told about my limitations even more. I spent the next 4 years of my academic life playing poker and trivial pursuit with the equally disinterested, at an unkempt coffee bar near campus. Much of the degree just passed me by, its contents committed to memory for exams only and promptly forgotten after. By the time I graduated as an Msc in Physics, I was terrified of having to land any job remotely related to my degree. I wanted to study literature, be a doctor, make big scientific discoveries, debate the big philosophical questions in life. Physics, was most definitely not on that list. The only way to avoid the job market, was to keep studying. So I did. For another 5 years. My choices of Msc and PhD topics were only marginally wiser, but it gave me a chance to live in foreign places, feel free, and discover more about myself than I had in all the years prior. Successful? Most definitely. Except, by the time of I graduated with a PhD, I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

I had romantic notions of homesteading, writing, thinking and doing some sort of science research. If you can find a Maecenas to support you financially in those endeavors, then great. But otherwise, prepare to downgrade your dreams. Homesteading, strangely enough, requires money to get set up and vasts amounts of guts and experience. I most definitely lacked all three. Writing sounds great, but everyone wants to be a writer these days and the deadline-chasing-for-a-penny freelance life really doesn’t get my creative juices flowing. Thinking and doing some sort of science research also sounds great, but even there the choices are limited: enter the ivory tower of academia in which you become a technical lab sleuth, or get stuck teaching and writing grants. So, in yet another defeatist move, I took a job with anyone willing to provide me with some sort of mentorship and vast amounts of autonomy, in return for quirky but lucrative productive efforts on my part. In hindsight, this decision was not the worst, as it taught me vastly more than any of my academic endeavors, and I lived a relatively high quality life for the duration.

And then the parenting thing happened. Nothing throws things into sharper perspective than the birth of your child. It’s like being given a new set of lenses, revealing an entirely new color palette and skewing dimensions and perspectives in very unexpected ways. When he grows up and considers his mother, who will he see? How can he see me, when I fail to see myself in clear focus? Will he think of me as someone who lived merely haphazardly? Or will he see someone whose choices in life truly reflect her values and passion? If he calls me upon the hard questions in life, those that really matter, will I be able to rise to the occasion? I no longer believe that I will ever be grown up. I’ve come to see that growing up is a journey without end. With that, comes an even more crushing responsibility. If we are never meant to arrive, we have to keep moving. Sometimes forward, sometimes backward. Sometimes in endless circles. Sometimes deliberate, sometimes adrift on a greater current. I’ve done the latter. Perhaps now is the time to explore the first. So, for the next few weeks and months, I am embarking on a quest. Trying to figure out what’s at the core of me, and how that can translate into a life worth living and sharing. I’ve formulated 50 questions I feel I need to consider, and will tackle them systematically over the coming weeks. All of this will be logged on here.