I am currently in the process of reading Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist. I call it a "process" because I can really only read one chapter at a time, sometimes only one chapter in a day, because it's so packed with great thoughts and relatable moments that I need to stop and really think about them. She describes her book of essays on life with God as "a book on celebration, on the beauty and dimension of our everyday lives." But the thing is, Shauna Niequist gets that while celebration is needs to be a huge part of walking with God, sometimes our human hearts just aren't capable of celebration on a daily basis. Sometimes life knocks us down, and it takes us a while to get back up. And there's beauty there too, though we can't see it at the time--the beauty of God working little miracles that we would never expect, molding even our bad times into a bigger good.
Of the 16 essays I've read so far, at least four of them have made me want to run for the computer and write about how inspiring they are and how, yes, this lady really, perfectly describes exactly what I have felt at various points in my life. Today I read the chapter entitled "Eggs and Baskets," and I just couldn't hold back anymore.
In this chapter, Ms. Niequist describes leaving her job at a church and the emotional effect that it had on her. Let me just give you her own words, then explain why this chapter hit me so hard:
"If I had been savvier and more aware, I would have resigned sooner. For a lot of reasons that I only understand now, I did the opposite: I tried and tried and tried to make something work that had stopped working a long time before I tried to salvage it. And I left, in the end, because I had no other choice.
"More than a career setback, more than a professional disappointment, what it felt like to me was a heartbreak. I felt like something unraveled around me. I felt more vulnerable and powerless than I had in a decade. I didn't recognize myself in the mirror. One of my deepest secret beliefs is that I am actually not a good person at all, not a talented or helpful person in any way, and that someday everyone will find out even though I've managed to trick them for a little while, and this felt like the confirmation of all those feelings for all those years.
"The point, I can see now, is not the job. The point is that the job was like a safety pin that was holding me together, and when the pin released, the whole system of my life and my self fell apart. People leave jobs all the time. I know. I know it's hard, and that it stings, and that you get over it and you move on and you find a new place to work. I know that jobs are things you do, that they're not badges of who you are, that they're not as important as your character or your family or your soul. I know.
"I know those things, but something happened to me when I left my job. Something bad. I lost it, whatever it is. I lost that sense that I was okay, and that I would be okay again. I lost all belief in my future. I was sad and scared and ashamed. Without knowing it, without intending to, I had shoved way too much of myself into my job, more than a job can possibly bear, and I set myself up to fall a terrible distance if something were ever to happen to that job. And then, of course, it did. I put all my eggs in the job basket, until it because impossibly heavy, and it broke." (pages 98-99)
Wow. Friends, this could be me talking, if I was that articulate and self-aware. My first career was in teaching. And I invested myself, body and soul, in that job. I lived and breathed for my students. Looking back, I didn't have much of a social life during that time. I spent my evenings and weekends working extracurriculars. Ben often came to school events with me; all my students knew him. I wanted to be a really exceptional teacher, but more so, a really exceptional mentor to my students. After a few years on this path, I transitioned from a classroom teacher to the full-time Director of Student Activities, a change that I welcomed because it enabled me to spend more time one-on-one with the kids instead of mired down in lesson planning and grading. I loved that job more than anything, and it broke my heart.
Calling that job "full-time" is almost laughable in its understatement. I worked around the clock, during school hours, evenings, and weekends. I practically lived in my office; I ate 3 meals a day at my desk and was even known to sleep there on occasion (even though the school was only about a mile from my house). I was making less money than I had even as I had as a first-year teacher, but I loved what I was doing. When I went on maternity leave for the delivery of Bryn, the school didn't hire a replacement for me. Instead, I fielded phone calls about various events at all hours of day and night, sent detailed instructions to students via email, and returned to an immense pile of catch-up work, bleary-eyed and overwhelmed after a mere 4 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.
One perk of that job was that since I was a department unto myself, often going entire school days without seeing another adult near my isolated office, I was allowed to take Bryn to work with me (convenient, since I returned to work before she was old enough to have been eligible for any daycare). She spent her babyhood in that office. She watched her first videos on my office tv, was fed her first solid foods by an endless parade of adoring student aides, and napped (or rather, refused to nap) in a Pack 'n' Play in the adjoining concession stand.
By the end of that school year, my overtime hours added up to more than 90 comp days earned. For that entire year, I had clung to my principal's promises that the next year, my pay would go up and my hours would go down. With just a few weeks left in the school year, though, he changed his tune: the following year would include added responsibilities; my pay would be reduced thanks to "budget cuts;" and oh yeah, Bryn would no longer be allowed to come to work with me. I was absolutely devastated. I loved my job and the kids that I worked with, but with reduced pay and the hours that I was working, I wouldn't be able to cover childcare for my one child.... not to mention the fact that I would never see her or my husband. With a heavy heart, I put in my resignation. Thanks to the political machinations of my principal, I was not compensated for a single one of the 90+ comp days that I had earned, and I also lost the $3000 summer bonus that I had been promised.
I was completely torn apart. I had given my body, heart, and soul to that job and didn't know what to do without it. While I had been the one to resign, I had only done so because I felt like I didn't have any other options. So there I was, left at home with an 8-month-old baby who never, ever slept, dealing with what I now realize was a wicked case of post-partum depression, and wondering what on earth I was going to do with my life. I was 27 years old and quickly became convinced that I had run out of possibilities.
I spent most of that summer trying to get Bryn to sleep (unsuccessfully) and trying to launch a new career (also unsuccessfully). I was too raw and sad to go back into a school system at that point, so I searched and searched for a job, any job, in another field. I learned that the English degree my college professors had praised as "versatile" was useless in trying to find a job other than teaching. I tried to put my love of kids to good use and applied for various youth-oriented jobs, only to repeatedly make it to the final round of interviews and then get cut. My already-broken heart fractured again and again. By the time I gave up and admitted that finding a new field of work wasn't going to happen, the school year had already started, and I was out of luck.
While all of my friends were enjoying that first glow of the new school year (and I was envying them from afar), I got a positive pregnancy test. For a few days, I celebrated joyously--surely, surely, this was why God had led me to become an unwilling stay-at-home mom, so that I could raise not one but two sweet little babies. But then I miscarried, and my whole vision of the future closed in on itself. I felt like an utter failure. I couldn't find a job; I couldn't sustain a baby's life. I was a failure as both a professional and a mother. I cried and cried and refused to leave the house. The only good thing I could find about this period of my life was that Bryn was too young to register or remember what a terrible mess her mom was.
The months passed, and I tried to rally and recover, but it just felt like I kept getting knocked down over and over again. We moved to our new house in a neighboring town, and while I was thrilled about the house, that move also took us to a new area of town, where I hardly knew anyone and felt even further separated from the job and friends that had defined my life before. We had built that house on the assumption that we would have two salaries to pay for it, so I worked an endless stream of odd jobs to help pay for it. I graded standardized tests in a huge, depressing warehouse, filled with other sad people working on old computers. I tutored students from my old school, which never failed to re-open the wounds left by my resignation. I graded more standardized tests online, nearly falling asleep at the keyboard every time I turned it on. I got a job working retail and prayed that no one from my old life would see me there, as I viewed it to be an embarrassing, plummeting fall after my former professional glory.
Slowly, I got our boxes unpacked and our family settled into our new house. I made new friends in our new community and found a new church, where I sobbed through the sermons every week, feeling like they had been written with poor, hopeless me in mind. I enrolled in a graduate program to earn my masters degree, planning to return to teaching in the fall. And just when I started to feel like maybe I was going to make it out of that dark place, I got knocked down again.... with another miscarriage. I felt hopeless, immobilized, like nothing would ever be right again.
And then, just a few months later, against all odds, there was Shay.
This tiny little life inside of me, persistently hanging on, growing where two other babies had not. She was an utter miracle.
And for me, that turned the tide. Things didn't get better immediately, but I was infinitely more determined to fight back against my circumstances, to see the good in my life instead of the bad. Dear friends, both old and new, came alongside me for this journey and lifted me up to where I felt like I could breathe again. I got more involved in my new church, and the wonderful people there lifted our family up with prayer and encouragement. I made the decision, for myself, to put teaching aside for the time being and to focus on my family. And through it all, Shay kept growing, kept fighting, giving me hope that I could do the same.
As I look at Shay now, nearly five years later, with all of this in mind, her personality makes so much sense to me. For her, hearing "no" is a temporary setback, not the end of anything. She's fierce and strong and never hesitates to fight for what she wants. She's loyal and determined, unafraid to show her emotions. She's my sunshine, caring for and comforting the people around her. She knows what she wants and doesn't waver. She's beautiful and strong and miraculous. I have no doubt that even back then, when she was very first growing inside of me, that it was her strong spirit that leant me what I needed to come back to myself.
Now, those dark days seem like something out of someone else's life, something that I can only remember through a veil. This is why reading Shauna Niequist's story of a similar time in her own life hit me like a punch to the gut, confirming for me that even in those dark times, I was never alone. While I didn't see much to "celebrate" in that time after leaving my job, God was all the while crafting a better miracle for my life: my sweet Shaylee Grace, my new identity as a mother, and all the adventures that our family has experienced since then. Of course, Shay didn't change all that by herself; God did. But the simple fact that she existed, that she was such a fighter, hanging on so tenaciously against all odds, made me want to do the same... and for that, I will be forever grateful.