Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

The Hard Business of Letting Go

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“a kind of goodbye to all that, to all this—to this person I imagined myself as or imagined I’d become, this identity that I needed so badly in order to feel good about myself.”—Lauren Quinn

“Where do I go from here, how do I proceed now without goal, without path: how do I float?”—Sarah Menkedick

I search job ads at local universities. Obsessively. I started this as soon as we moved to Florida. Perusing the ads was a way to figure out alternate paths. It (supposedly) gave me a feel for what kinds of jobs were available. I avoided faculty and adjunct listings, focusing instead on administrative positions. Perhaps, I thought, I could stay in higher education in a different capacity.

Relentless perusal, I assured myself, was for the best: My grace period will eventually end. I’ll need to know what kinds of jobs are available. “It’s just research,” I say aloud. My infant son gurgles at me skeptically. My husband and I talk about possible career options; we strategize about turning my CV into a resume. I tell him that maybe the perfect job will come along. He nods supportively. I smile tentatively.

In early November, an academic-advisor position becomes available at a nearby university. It requires working with student athletes, which I’ve done before and enjoyed. The job is one that I’ve already considered as a good fit. I read and reread the job description, imagining how I might sell myself to the hiring manager. I might even love a job like this.

The pros and cons of the advisor position seem pretty clear. It’s a mostly 9-to-5 job, and my schedule would lack some of flexibility that I was used to in my previous lectureship. Both my five-year-old daughter and my son would have to go into full-time daycare, costing a whopping $1,400 a month. There would be no summers off, and I would spend less time with my children. There would also be little time to finish my manuscript, which is under contract.

Yet I am excited about the prospect of working with students again. I miss students and teaching more than I thought I would. Maybe I can find a place for myself at a university without being contingent labor, I think. Maybe I can be happy with this as my career. Maybe I should take the plunge and reinvent myself on the alt-ac track.

As the deadline looms, the cons seem to outweigh the pros. The daycare costs alone give me pause. Downgrading my writing and research to hobbies bothers me more than I expect. The decision to apply feels rushed. Why am I jumping so quickly at this opportunity? Wasn’t I was supposed to take the year off? Why am I pressuring myself to apply? The internal pressure subsumes me. It paralyzes me.

The deadline passes. I don’t apply for the job. Self-scrutiny remains.

Guilt rears its ugly head. I had let an opportunity pass me by. How very unlike me! I feel moorless and cowardly. The only way to move on from academia was to move on. Make choices. Apply for jobs. Be fearless. Experiment with new possibilities. Instead, I stalled. What happened to that fearless and confident woman that I was before graduate school and the job market? When did I lose her? How can I get her back? What would she think of me now? Would my 22-year-old self be disappointed in her 33-year-old counterpart?

Realization punches me in the gut. That woman was long gone. She dissipated with every year. She became less fearless, more nervous. My dream to become a professor floated away, too, in the flurry of applications and the brutal realities of the job market. The career that I trained for appears more and more untenable day by day.

Applying for a job off the tenure track, then, felt like the death knell of my dream. I stalled, not because I am a coward, but because abandoning who you think you are going to be is hard. I’ve let the dream I haven’t achieved define me more than my accomplishments. That dream turned toxic, and it is time to let it go.

This realization hovered over me from the moment I decided to take a year off. I’ve been struggling to ignore it. I have to let go, and now, I’m ready.

I get to find a new dream—or dreams. I get to figure out who I want to be. I get to be fearless again.

Image: Salvador Dali's "The Impossible Dream."

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