Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Identity costs

Well I can't change
Even if I try
Even if I wanted to

-- chorus to "Same Love," by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert

One of the great successes in my life (and there's more than one, but this is one of the biggest) has been going back to school. At first, "going back to school" was simply going to night school and getting my BA. But then it shifted, and became moving to go to grad school -- and then it became getting my doctorate and becoming a professor. I know people who credit me with putting the idea in their heads to go back to school as well, and I know people who look at what I've done and are happy for me, but at the thought of doing it themselves they give a quiet "fuck that" because it's not something they need or want. And that is TOTALLY OKAY. I can't even say with any certainty that this will put me in a good place at the end of it all, financially speaking. It's a risky sort of thing, and it's definitely not a one-size-fits-all lifepath. My family thinks I'm crazy, as do many of my coworkers (and even professors, though they understand it themselves). Going back to school (and going to grad school in particular), however, is a great success not because of grades or earning potential or any of that stuff. It's a great success because it's who I am, and it is so far more authentically than almost any other life choice I'd made before that time.

I have been a lot of people in my life -- all of them me, sure, but just parts of me, and each of those choices required that I shut down part of myself to be that person in that situation. I grew up making that choice, because to be myself was offputting and strange to my community. I believed that I was flawed simply by being who I was and that it was okay to be someone else -- preferred, really, given that I was a girl. My family/husband/children was the most important decision and action I could possibly do. And it's not that I really was told that, but it was part of a lot of underlying assumptions about life that I only half-internalized (which led to no end of trouble later on, and which I'm still unearthing). I have a limited scope of talents. I gave up all the stuff I'm actually good at in order to be the person I was supposed to be. The problem, though, was that I was never really good at it. I got better, but I just... I couldn't function effectively as the wife and mother and person I became. I couldn't make life work the way it was supposed to, and part of me -- the parts I silenced (with encouragement) -- were always, always rather sad. My mom once observed that I was kind of a chameleon, because I would change to suit the people I was with. She was right, even though I didn't realize it. It was protective camouflage, but in the end it didn't work because I was actually all the stuff I was trying to hide.

I don't want to paint the picture that all my life before that decision was bad -- it wasn't. It was sort of like wandering around blindfolded, though. My kids are another of the greatest successes in my life, for example, and I don't regret them. At the same time, I maintained a purposely passive position in my own life, following the leads of others and quietly (and without anyone asking) sacrificing bits of me to make things work. And I'm not implying that I was even good at that, or that it was noble in some way. It's just all I knew how to do. I was the princess that cut off her little finger to free her brothers, following the models of a thousand fictional (and real) women before me.

In many ways, making the decision to go back to school was hard, but not as hard as it should have been. I didn't realize the cost I'd be paying -- that I still pay. I didn't actually have a good reason to go back to school -- yes, it might let me earn more money in the improbable field of writing and editing, but not as much as changing careers would have. English, though... it was the one thing I couldn't give up. My mom wanted me to take up a med tech profession, and it would have been smart for any number of reasons. I couldn't do it, though. It was a sacrifice I couldn't make. So I went back to school, telling myself that it was all about the money and would be done soon. And then I applied for honors, because my pride wouldn't let me skip it. And then I applied for an MA, horrified at my own actions and refusing to consider the consequences of success. And then I got in, and I moved away from my children, leaving them with their father full time and taking summers and holidays (again, only for a short time, I said). And then I graduated and went on to my PhD. Only now -- only now, 3 years in -- can I admit that if I had known I was leaving them, I could not have left, but that I also could not have stayed and been happy -- pretty much ever, having given up this one last dream.

In choosing school, what I didn't realize is that I was choosing myself. I was taking a path I should have been on 20 years before -- would have been on, except for my misguided choices that I had no chance of recognizing for what they were. My choice, although I justified it in a dozen different ways (all of which had some element of truth to them), was inherently selfish. We're not supposed to be selfish, especially not women being selfish, but this was and is and I recognize that. I am still a tiny bit angry with myself about it, frankly, especially when I'm parted from my children. But -- and this is the trick -- having chosen myself and acted on it, I can no longer go back. I am more real now than I've ever been, and I can no longer be a shadow of this person I am on behalf of someone else. I am guilty and guilt-ridden and saddened and horrified, but I can't go back. I am this person. I am an academic at heart. I study and analyze and critique and write and read and try my damnedest to communicate the things I see to people who would otherwise not know. I am a teacher and a student. I am geeky and serious and overly invested in detail. I have huge blind spots about relationships and executive function and likely outcomes, which is one reason I spend so much time thinking about them and trying to predict them. I am aspie and there are things I'm just bad at and will always be bad at, because I am comparatively good at them now after 40 years of practice and I'm still bad at them. I am introverted and occasionally callous and standoffish and impolite and uncaring. I am disorganized and snippy and intolerant of people who refuse to learn, because learning is so important to me. I like dogs but only tolerate cats, and I can't handle emotional discussions because they overwhelm me, and I have to work hard at interacting with the world as a whole, even the bits of it I like. And if I ever had the ability to be someone else in any of these ways, I don't have that any more. Perhaps I'm too old, or perhaps I was only fooling myself before about fitting in. I don't know and it's probably not important anyway.

The important part is that in allowing myself to outwardly be who I am, in choosing to feed and encourage the parts of me that are central to my being, I lost the ability to pretend to some other identity or social role. I can't change, now, even if I try. Even if I wanted to. And I don't want to, but even as I stand here (metaphorically speaking) and feel myself solidly here, inhabiting this space, feeling wholly myself and happy in that person -- I weep. Because being me has a cost, and that cost is in part my role as mother and daughter to people who can't (and don't want to) share this life. The cost is in potential income, and in potential relationships, and in potential damage to the relationships I have and need and cherish because I can't say anymore "whatever you want to do is fine" and mean it. I can accept arrangements and I can make space and I can tetris things around my personal boundaries, but now because I am a person I recognize, I have boundaries, and I can lose things and people and opportunities because of it. That scares me -- rightly so, I think. Matt sees me pretty well as I am, I think, and that seems to be the person he wants, and so I'm less worried than I would otherwise be about what costs being me might have with him. But in the end, this is the bargain I am stuck with, bad or good, because if I give this away then I truly have nothing -- and that's no longer acceptable to me, if I were even still capable of it. And as much as it hurts sometimes, that's okay.