Let self-rediscovery guide you to authentic living and working in a post-pandemic world.
When I was in sixth grade, my language arts teacher asked us to write a story in our journals. I think it was Halloween or something. When the time was up, she asked if anyone wanted to share. I raised my hand, and I read my story to the class. After I finished, I heard whispers from around the room.
That was really good.
Wow, that’s way better than mine.
I didn’t know she could write like that.
Nobody did. I had been writing for as long as I could remember. Journaling, stories, poems, everything. It was all just for me, though. It was something that I loved and something I had never shared with anybody else until that day.
As my teacher dismissed us, she asked me to stay back for a moment. She asked me what classes I was in and if I was in any ‘honors’ classes. I told her that I was in honors reading, and she told me she thought I needed to be in honors writing, too. The very next day I had a new schedule.
I loved my new class. I felt challenged by the work and by my new classmates. I felt motivated to improve and do better and to share what I could do. Above all, I felt proud.
I felt proud when my dad came to parent-teacher conferences and mused with my teachers that maybe I would be a journalist. I felt proud when I got to tell my mom that my short story had been published in The Columbus Dispatch. I felt proud when I was selected to write competitively in a program called Power of the Pen.
I felt like me. And I felt seen. Two things that I wouldn’t feel again for a very long time.
I believe it must be a rite of passage to have something that you love, something that you feel defines you, muddled or muted in some ugly way until you put it away and pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s what happened to my writing.
Awkward and/or traumatic experiences in your formative years are not an anomaly, and I certainly had my fair share of them- sometimes I think more so than the average damaged adult. After a series of critically defining events, I forgot that day in sixth grade ever happened. I forgot what it was like to feel challenged and motivated and proud. I forgot what it was like to have something that made me feel special and talented and, most importantly, like myself. I forgot what it was like to feel like I had a bright and exciting future ahead of me.
Instead, I became focused solely on survival. I focused on getting the hell out of where I was by any means necessary. My quest for survival led me down a different path- the path of least resistance.
A few years later, during my sophomore year of college, I was reminded of who I used to be. It was right around the time my “final” for a phonics class consisted of writing out 250 words in my finest elementary print, the kind I would someday be teaching to pre-K through third graders. I was writing out the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody” when alarms started going off in my brain.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing; it was that I wasn’t really learning. I wasn’t growing. I started thinking about the classes I had taken up to that point. Which ones had I actually felt fulfilled in? I realized every LAE (Liberal Arts Essential) I had taken that involved reading, writing, or history had been exhilarating for me.
Once I came to that realization, I did an even deeper dive into my humble educational beginnings. I remembered that day in sixth grade; I remembered all my old journals and poems and stories. I remembered who I had been before the ugly parts of my life clouded my bright future. I woke up.
That coming weekend was spring break. Instead of participating in the typical college spring break debauchery, I went home. I spent the week on the floor of the fiction and poetry sections of a nearby Barnes and Noble drinking coffee, devouring literature, and getting reacquainted with myself.
The second I got back to campus, I made an appointment with my advisor and changed my major and minor. Of course, I’d have to finish out the rest of the semester on my current track, but starting the next fall, I’d be on a new mission. And luckily enough, it wouldn’t cost me any extra time. It was a sign.
By the time I graduated, I felt more seen and more myself than I ever had. Now, however, I was up against a new challenge. Every graduate school I had applied to was a dream school; it was all a fantasy. I truly believed I was good enough to get into all of them, and I didn’t have a backup plan. Had I applied to some MFA programs that accepted more than a handful of applicants every year or broadened my horizons and applied to some history or comparative literature programs as well, I might have had more luck. Nevertheless, I was scrambling to figure out what I was going to do.
After meeting with my advisor again, I learned that I had all the content prerequisites to enter a secondary education master's program. I could teach English or history or both to middle and/or high school kids. It wasn’t that far removed from where I had started my college career, and while it certainly wasn’t what I had envisioned upon my “great awakening,” it was an option- the only one I had.
I finished grad school a semester early, started teaching middle school language arts at a small rural school in my husband’s hometown, and made a life for myself. I always told myself that I didn’t need an MFA to write and that I would keep writing on the side- on the weekends, in the evenings- which I did for a while. I wrote a few short stories, a few poems, and then nothing for a long time. And that was… OK.
I actually enjoyed teaching. I liked most of my colleagues, and I loved my kids. I loved sharing things I was passionate about with them and seeing them become independent and critical thinkers. I think, in a way, I was trying to be to them what that sixth-grade teacher was to me, and I hope to some of them I was.
But as much as I really did enjoy what I was doing, the writer in me was still in there trying to claw her way back to the surface.
I did that for six years. Then my daughter was born. For a myriad of reasons (namely Covid and a toxic co-teaching situation), I decided to take a leave of absence for the length of the school year- and then I resigned altogether.
I had never pegged myself for the stay-at-home mom type. I loved working. But between the pandemic and the mentally and emotionally draining situation I’d be going back to, I felt I owed it to my daughter to give her the best and safest version of me possible. That meant not going back to work, at least for the time being.
So what was I going to do? How was I going to keep myself intellectually stimulated and fulfilled? Was there anything else I could do? Luckily, I had a lot of time to think. And read.
Thanks to a six-month gift subscription to the Book of the Month Club from a dear friend, I was getting the latest material of my choosing. I was also reading a lot of articles on literally any and every topic. As I nursed or rocked my baby each day, I’d read, and I’d think I could do this. I felt creative and motivated. I found the intellectual stimulation and fulfillment I had been looking for.
Every four a.m. pumping session spent reading another chapter, every contact nap spent browsing articles, every spark of creativity with an idea for a poem or short story or personal essay reaffirmed and reignited the passion I’d known all my life but that had been snuffed out too many times.
One night as I was putting my daughter to bed, speaking words of affirmation to her as I do every night- you’re sweet and smart and funny and kind and strong and special and beautiful; you can be anything you want to be- I realized if I really wanted her to internalize and believe those words, I needed to be her example. I needed to start living my life to show her I believe I am also all of those things and that I can be anything I want.
What I want is to be someone she can be proud of. What I want is to be someone who shows her she can live her dream, whatever it may be, and do it successfully. What I want is to be authentically, unapologetically, and confidently me so that she knows what that looks like and how powerful it can be so she can do it too.
In that moment, I made the decision. I was going to be a writer. Finally.
Nobody understands the turns life takes more than I do. I know what it’s like to have a passion that is such an integral part of your identity and then settle on something different out of necessity. And don’t get me wrong, I loved what I did for those six years. It just didn’t leave me with the mental or emotional stamina to keep living my writing dream on the side. I didn’t have enough gas left in the tank after dealing with impoverished, hormonal, and entitled middle schoolers to come home and bust out a collection of poems.
And I’m not the only one.
In a Gallup Poll taken in 2017, it was reported that only 15% of employees worldwide feel engaged in their work. A couple of years later, Staff Squared interpreted this data, citing things like bosses, colleagues, type of work, commute, and stagnant growth as possible culprits for the lack of job fulfillment. Staff Squared also speculated why 85% of people throughout the world would continue to stay in positions they are unhappy with. Aside from the obvious reasons such as responsibility, lack of job opportunities, and salary, the two that stick out to me are both wrapped up in one thing: fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of being wrong.
I totally get it. We resign ourselves to lines of work that may not be our first choice, but they pay the bills- and maybe we don’t hate what we end up doing. I didn’t. I embraced it, loved it even. And I did what so many of us do in that situation- I got comfortable. I was making good enough money for where I was living, and I enjoyed the benefits of a combined income with my now-husband. We also didn’t have children at the time, so our money was ours to do with as we pleased after financial obligations.
But sooner or later, our passions and convictions catch up with us. Something reminds us of what we really loved doing before life happened and forced us to make hard decisions that led us astray. We become unsatisfied. What then? We have bills to pay, we have babies, we have mortgages or rent, we have these lives that we’ve built around all the decisions we made when it was time to grow up and take care of business. We can’t just quit our jobs and take on passion projects. We can’t risk our livelihoods for the sake of something that our younger selves once relished. Or can we?
I was fortunate that my calling came at a rather opportune time. The impossible combination of Covid and my maternity leave led me to quit my job anyway. I found myself in the same position as roughly 2.1 million other women who have either left or been pushed out of the workforce due to the collision of work-life and childcare amid the pandemic. That position allowed me the time to reflect, to get reacquainted with myself (again), and to make a decision I might not otherwise have made.
I’m not the only one doing this, either.
Many an article has been written about why and how the pandemic has offered us, particularly women, an opportunity to make a career change. For those of us who are privileged enough to make that decision voluntarily, or even if that decision was made for you, Caroline Castrillon offers this insight:
If you are thinking about a career change, you are probably questioning whether your work is truly fulfilling. Look back at your professional life and identify those moments that brought you joy and meaning. What projects or activities made you feel truly alive? When were you most in touch with your authentic self? — Caroline Castrillon, Forbes Magazine 2020
Living and working as our authentic selves should be the ultimate goal. We may take detours along the way, sometimes really long ones, but when the opportunity presents itself to make that coveted course correction, we have a moral obligation to take it.
My moment of clarity was just a few weeks ago. I’m taking my opportunity.
I don’t expect it to be easy. I don’t expect it to happen quickly. In fact, from where I am now, it feels rather daunting. But I’m not going to stop. And you shouldn’t either.
I owe it to my sixth-grade self to finally see this dream through after twenty years of deferring it. What do you owe to yours?
Jordan Peden is a writer, wife, and new mother who quit her day job to pursue her passion. She is based in a small town, Ohio.