Mulling

Stuff I’ve been thinking about; clearing my head.

In 2003, we made a career decision that we’ve regretted ever since. It’s too tiresome to go into all the details – it was a job offer for Gimli at a university in DC, but it meant backing out of a commitment we’d made at the university he’s been teaching at since 2000, and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it (there were other reasons, too, but this was a big one).

The commitment was to take a group of 30 students on a semester abroad to South Africa in the fall of 2003. It was a devastating experience for me – not so much because of anything that had to do with South Africa, which I loved, and would love to visit again (or live there, that would be cool too) but the inter-personal conflicts with the American staff of the organization that hosted us. These conflicts became so bitter I was almost destroyed in the process. I remember one meeting where I sat crying with my head bowed and resting on my arm, snot and tears dripping out my nose in a long thread because I couldn’t even muster up the will to get a tissue and wipe myself up. We went back to the US and I couldn’t work, I couldn’t even get out of bed some days. Supposedly I was giving creative writing a try but most days I lay on the couch watching Sex and the City or the Sopranos, knitting a bit off and on.

I came slowly out of the fog – long walks into the woods behind the house we were renting, on the edge of national forestland – tending a small flower garden as the snow melted and tulips came up all around the lawn – picking Japanese beetles off the rose-bushes – doing counted cross-stitch while listening to NPR – light and color came back into my days, and the dark clouds receded. (The therapist who saw me through those days is gone now; she died of a brain aneurism just days after she cut short our last session due to a splitting headache. I feel like I need to make a profound remark about that – but I guess all I can find to say is just to acknowledge how much she helped me, and how sad I am that she’s gone.)

We bought a house and moved into town; I got a job; then a couple years later went back to graduate school for a PhD so I could feel more equal to my husband, and so I could do more university teaching.

Through all of this, there was the baby question. Before that cross-roads in 2003, I had been pestering Gimli about starting a family. Then my plan was to ditch the birth control as soon as we got back from South Africa. But in the emotional aftermath of that trip, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It took another year before I was ready. And then three more years before we finally did conceive.

What if we’d taken the other road? We would most likely have started trying sooner… I would not have gone through that devastating semester abroad (Gimli was affected by it too, but not as much as I was – the dynamics of the situation were such that I placed myself in the middle, very deliberately, and I took all the pain of that conflict into myself. I think I spared the students from having to deal with most of it – although in the end they were drawn into it too, of course)… and then shortly after we got back the proverbial shit hit the fan at the university – another long story of intra-institutional drama – and Gimli lost most of the joy he’d had in that job.

So we always think, what if? What if?

It’s not a productive way of thinking, but it’s hard not to do it.

In our current crossroads, the way I feel about it is that we already made the wrong choice, back in 2003, we made the big mistake, and now any decision we make doesn’t really matter. It’s kind of freeing, to me, to think this way – there literally isn’t a right or wrong decision. We’re on a path we weren’t supposed to be on in the first place, so whatever we choose doesn’t actually matter any more.

I know, I know; had we gone the other direction, in 2003, something equally awful – or even worse – might have happened, and we’ll never know; we never can know. Which makes it easy to imagine it all would have been perfect. The job, the baby, the life, maybe I would have started working towards a PhD sooner, as well.

Clearly, there are a lot of things we would have missed out on, too. Our best friends are people we didn’t meet until 2004.

But another fall-out of the 2003 mistake was that we don’t fully trust our decision-making capabilities (which is why, I think, I end up going in the direction of fatalism – it’s partly a coping mechanism). But Gimli, Gimli just second-guesses himself all the more. And it’s driving me a wee bit nuts. 

What do you take into consideration when making a life decision? Do you think through every angle, make lists of pros and cons, talk to lots of people, pray, meditate, or just go with your gut? Do you trust your gut on things like this? 

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10 Responses to “Mulling”

  1. tara Says:

    I think through everything and then mostly go with my gut, modified by a solid dose of “what does everyone else think!!”— knowing that it has been good (I think D was better than doing computer-chem at UW, so was my break at St.M) and bad (o, the postdoc from hell!!!) I can revise my history and tell myself that I wouldn’t have compared current job so favorably if I hadn’t had such a crap postdoc…but mostly I think there isn’t a ‘right’ pathway (or person). I think there are only decisions that can turn out to be what you expected or unexpectedly good/ bad. If bad, then you have to decide if they are so bad that you need to change your course.
    I sometimes wish I were back in Vt, I wish I had studied something other than chemistry, I wish that I had gone to W in England, I wonder about those other paths and think I would have been better, stronger, faster, more adept at complex thought and with more kids! But then I’d be a different me and maybe I wouldn’t be any happier anyway.
    I guess I’m a bloom-where- you- are-planted unless it’s the freaking desert, in which case, get out dodge quick my friend! sort of person. My ability to stick my decisions (even when they SUCK!!!!) is both a good thing and a bad thing… but the advice I give students is always based on that one premise: there isn’t one pathway so commit yourself to where you are at. I think the one pathway/ person is a half-truth that the church & our culture pushes way too much.

  2. slowmamma Says:

    I would say that I also tend to follow my gut. At least in hindsight, my decisions seem to be guided more by emotion that reason. However, I think it’s incredibly difficult to objectively evaluate the decision-making process after the fact. It can be difficult to separate a bad decision from a bad experience. For example, in your choice to go to S. Africa, could you have foreseen the difficulties that came to be? If not, I would suggest that it was simply a bad experience but not a bad decision. After all, there are only so many factors that are within our control.

    I wish you lots of luck with this process (and I think luck probably does play an enormous part in it). Although I always manage to forget after the fact, life decisions are incredibly difficult.

    • Elizabeth Says:

      This was so helpful to hear – “a bad experience but not a bad decision… there are only so many factors that are within our control.” You know in hindsight, we could see all the red flags, but going into it… we thought we could make it work, we WANTED so much for it to work.

      Thank you so, so much.

  3. jjiraffe Says:

    For the longest time I blamed a decision we made in 2003: we bought a house in the burbs, after living a wonderful urban existence in London. The juxtaposition of the boring suburban life with the vibrant London scene was too hard for Darcy to bear, and for me once we couldn’t get pregnant, living in the thick of happy families was awful.

    I had a hard time forgiving myself for such a blunder. Now, with a bit more clarity I can see that Darcy was able to get his MBA and focus on his career, and that was good for him.

    Life is a journey, and I think we have to be kind to ourselves about our choices that are behind us….at least, that’s what I’d like to believe, anyway.

  4. Becky Says:

    I analyze things to death, but in the end generally end up going with my gut (because my experiences in the past have been that if I don’t, it’s the wrong decision and I regret it). I’ve never once regretted going with my gut.

    That said, I second jjiraffe. It’s so important to be gentle with ourselves. Because, as you said, those “coulda, shoulda, wouldas” do us no good. The path we’re on may not be the one we think we *should* be on, and yet, it is where we are.

    Here’s to you and hubby starting to trust yourselves again!

  5. Heather Says:

    I’m so sorry you had such a bad experience. I agree with the others about being kind to yourself: I think I have made bad decisions in the past but I sure have learned from them. It only gives us wisdom. Thanks for the comment on my blog.

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