I’ve been doing some happy dances lately. For some, that’s just an expression, but I actually do a hopping kind of dance when I’m happy. Despite the current challenging job market in the U.S., both of my children have found jobs they’re excited about and have launched their careers at the ages of 22 and 21! Parents of recent college grads likely understand my joyful celebration of such news. My daughter graduated last June with two degrees, and my son will graduate with two degrees this coming June. Back when I graduated from college, twenty-seven years ago, it seemed that a double major would have guaranteed someone the opportunity to start a rewarding job – not anymore. So many millennials I know are getting their degrees only to compete for the best restaurant or retail jobs – so they can survive in this economy, and avoid moving back in with their parents. Even though I knew my kids would probably choose living on the street first, I’ve avoided turning their rooms into a den and exercise space, just in case they would be jobless and need to move back home.
I should have known my kids would be able to find their way in the land of employment. My kids were my very first career counselors. When my daughter was three years old she asked me, “Mom, what are you going to be when you grow up like Dad?” I responded that I would still be her mom. She let me know that was a dumb answer. I was a bit concerned that her reaction had something to do with her telling me a few months earlier, “I won’t need a mom when I’m four.” I felt like I still had job security, though, since she had a younger brother I planned on mothering for a while. He was also eager for me to do something more with my life. When he was in Kindergarten, he would join me on our swing set after school and ask me at least once a week, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would always answer that I wanted to be his mom. He would nod politely. Then he and I would see how high we could swing.
Though I had chosen to be a stay-at-home mom, it wasn’t as if I was lacking goals. I’m the busiest person I know, because if I don’t already have a full schedule, I’m usually pursuing something new to make my life interesting and full. But I didn’t want to reveal my many previous or future career goals to my young children. I wanted them to form their own ideas about what interested them and what they should do as adults. I didn’t want them to think they should follow in my footsteps. They would have gotten dizzy if they tried.
My earliest career goal dates back to when I was two years-old. I would unscrew the doorstop that made a doingy sound at my Nana’s house every time I visited her. She would laugh every time I walked up and gave it to her. She would hold out her hand and say, “Why, thank you! That a good job, JuJu!” That was my first understanding of what a job was. It was my responsibility to make sure it was done and to do it well. I felt quite accomplished at doingy doorstop removal. But when I was three, I promoted myself to something even more rewarding: making gifts out of masking tape and brown shoe polish. I made several wallets. And I made a beautiful stone necklace for Nana by attaching a piece of yarn to a heavy rock with masking tape dabbed with shoe polish. When I gave it to Nana she told me I was the best necklace maker she knew. I had done my job well and I liked that it made her happy. She proved it by wearing it every time I came to the door. She would greet me while hunched over saying, “Oh, it’s soooo heavy, but so pretty!” She would groan and pretend to fall over from the weight of it to make me laugh. I loved Nana because she made it her job to make other people happy. She was better than any friend I had because she could use a stove and cook all my favorite foods, and play all my favorite games. She was willing to play hopscotch and it made me so happy when she hopped with me. She played dominoes, card games, paper dolls and toy barnyard animals. She loved coloring books, making up stories, singing, playing in my forts, and eating junk food with me. She made note of what made me happy and continued the silly necklace maker comedy routine with me for years, even as I pursued other job opportunities.
When I was four I decided to be an ad man like Darrin Stephens on Bewitched because I loved jingles and words that were layered with double meaning. In grade school I wanted to be a witch – like Samantha Stephens on Bewitched so that I could make good things happen for people with a twitch of my nose. Then I wanted to be a Bionic woman so I could make good things happen for people with my super strong body parts and one really good ear. Then I wanted to be an Olympic champion because I believed I was as strong as Bruce Jenner – and wanted to see myself on the Wheaties box. Then I wanted to be President of the United States because I had been following Gerald Ford’s and Jimmy Carter’s campaigns on the nightly news and had formed a lot of ideas about how my country should be run. Then I wanted to be an artist because I remembered that my creations made people happy.
In high school, I continued wanting to be an artist because my creations made me happy. Writing also made me happy. I received a lot of attention from classmates and teachers because of the things I wrote. One of my creative writing teachers often praised me in front of the class – so much that I thought I was well on my way to being invited to smoke pot with her and her posse of cool kids after school. I made my writing as edgy as I possibly could to guarantee an invitation from my stoner teacher. Then one day as she was praising my writing in front of the class she said, “You remind me of somebody . . .” I sat up tall in my desk and struck my coolest pose. I smiled while waiting to hear her compare me to Jack Kerouac or Sylvia Plath and hand me an invitation to meet her behind the community center after school . . . “Yes, that’s it! Your writing reminds me of Erma Bombeck.” My dreams of getting high with her went out the window, along with my dream of pursuing a writing career. I went back to wanting to be an artist.
When I went to college I returned to one of my earliest career goals. I decided I wanted to work at an ad agency as an art director. But the best laid plans of mice and me often go awry. Being an art director remained my goal until I had an internship at an agency my senior year of college and realized I loved copy writing, too. I decided I wanted to be a creative director so I could do both. After I graduated, I was willing to take any job at an ad agency and work my way to the top. I sent out over a hundred resumes in a couple months and was told almost as many times that the advertising market in the Twin Cities area had recently been saturated. I was told it was probably because of the popularity of the show thirtysomething. I would guess that Bewitched helped plant the seeds in my competition, too. I had to take a job as a custom design framing consultant in Dayton’s furniture store just to survive – and avoid moving back in with my parents. During slow times at work, I explored the possibility of opening a comedy bar so I could help people laugh. I also put on puppet shows from behind the framing desk to entertain the employees when there weren’t customers in the store. I enjoyed that so much I decided to pursue having a show similar to Sesame Street on cable access TV. Then I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker so I could entertain a broader audience. I decided I would stick with my framing job for a while until I applied to film making school in Chicago. Then I met my future husband through a co-worker.
I no longer wanted to move to Chicago and be a filmmaker. My framing job seemed tolerable with my boyfriend in my life – until my manager gave me a button and said, “This is you.” It had a picture of Bart Simpson on it and the words: World’s Greatest Underachiever. I said, “Thank you?” and started looking for a different job. I found a job as an assistant account executive at a graphic design agency. It was great – until the executive I was working for starting verbally abusing me and collecting balls of hair in her purse. It wasn’t my hair, but it made me uncomfortable just the same. I started finding freelance graphic design work in the Twin Cities. Then I got pregnant.
I was a stay-at-home mom from the time I had pregnancy complications with my daughter until my son left for college. I held the stay-at-home mom job longer than expected due to health related issues. I did occasional freelance jobs as a creative director and some retail work, but due to a reduced energy level, I had to make caring for my children a priority over pursuing a career. There were many days I wanted to run away or lock myself in the bathroom to get my exhausted body away from needy people (on those days I often took them to visit Nana and my other wonderful Grandma). But for the most part, I loved the job of being a mom. I realized once my kids started talking that they were the two most intelligent people I would probably ever know. They were so funny, too. And they were willing to do all of the things I loved: hopscotch, games, puppet shows, coloring, storytelling . . . We were the Three Musketeers for several years and I was so proud to say that I was the full-time mom of those two amazing creatures. But nobody warned me that it was a temporary job. At the time (once my daughter got past her four year-old independence streak), I couldn’t imagine that they would ever be independent enough to not really need me. And if they ever became self-sufficient, I thought that they certainly would still want to hang out with me 24/7. The fall of my son’s freshman year in college, I caught myself telling someone that I was a stay-at-home mom when they asked what I did. I immediately remembered that my kids were gone – and so was my purpose in life. I went somewhere to cry privately. And that was the last time I proudly told somebody that my job was being a mom.
Since then, I’ve been a community relations consultant, doing PR for a program that helps people with disabilities; a freelance creative director; an art teacher, because I like helping kids discover the joy of creating; a writer; a designer; a preschool teacher, because I like helping young kids enjoy learning . . . and that was all just in the last three years. During that time, I tried to get any job at an ad agency but I’ve been told in a lot of creative ways that I’m too old. One person I met kindly told me that she knew of only one agency in the Twin Cities that was looking for older people to work on geriatric accounts, so I shouldn’t feel bad if doors weren’t opening. I looked over my shoulder to see if she was talking to an old person, but I was the only one there. I went home and hopped off the insult.
My current focus is to finish a novel that I’ve been writing over the past year, so I can hopefully get it published while I still have the energy to do a happy dance about it. I’ve been writing the novel because I imagine it will make people happy when they read it. So I guess if I were forced to choose what I would be when I grow up it would be: a novelist. But once I accomplish that, it’s easy to imagine that I’ll bounce onto something else. I’ve been thinking a lot about someday starting an art organization for immigrant children.
Just so I could finally answer my kids’ question about what I plan to be, I’ve been wishing a lot lately that I could pick one job and stick with it for the remainder of whatever is left my work life. I once thought I would have my “real” career underway long before my children did. Since that ship has sailed, and I’m approaching fifty, and I’m closer to my end than the beginning, I’ve decided it’s time for me to finally solve the problem of not knowing what I want to be when I grow up . . .
I’ve decided not to grow up. It worked for Nana until she died at the age of 89. Grown-ups are expected to do things like choose long-term careers. I don’t think that’s meant for me. If hopping from job to job results in making a lot of people happy along the way, that’s a path I can feel good about.
© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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