Shelving My American Dream

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By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Dina Strasser

“You know what I’m going to do when I grow up, Mommy?”

This is a frequent topic of driving conversation between my ten-year-old daughter and me. The acoustics kind of suck in our car, but when we talk about this particular thing, I never pretend to hear what I haven’t heard clearly. I lean my head backwards between the seats and turn my ear towards my daughter, without taking my eyes off the road.

“I’m going to start a bakery named Blue Sky Bakery. I will serve pie and gumbo. Do you need to go to college to start a bakery?” she asks.

“It depends,” I say, smiling. “A two-year college can get you some good training in food prep. But you can also go to a fancier school, like the Culinary Institute in New York City, or Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.” I’ve looked this up. I’m feeling virtuous for already supporting my daughter’s edgy entrepreneurial pie-gumbo fusion career path.

You can do whatever you want, I say.

And then I stop. My jaws click shut, belatedly, on the lie.

•••

In June of this year, I turned down the most prestigious scholarship for doctoral work that my local, nationally recognized university had to offer. It was as generous as you could hope for: full tuition, opportunities for stipends and grants. The gracious professors there, and others who helped me with my applications, spent hours of their own time walking me through the process, writing recommendations; they said, to wit, you were born to be a Ph.D. And I knew it, because I had figured that out for myself in third grade. It was the only lifelong dream I have ever had.

My husband had always, warmly and unequivocally, supported me in pursuing the doctorate. Yet we now had a fairly unusual set of circumstances to consider. He: a Presbyterian minister, where work was increasingly hard to find, poorly paid, and mostly located in the South and Midwest. My only brother: mentally disabled. My mother: widowed. And me: needing exquisite mobility to find the kind of rapidly dwindling tenure-track job required to support my family, most of which were located in places best described as not in the South or Midwest.

It wasn’t adding up. But we tried. We spent three solid weeks, after we knew the amount of the scholarship award, talking to absolutely everyone: friends and family in academia, professors, ministers, finance people, each other. We looked up stats on line, took notes.

Finally, we went to a local diner for breakfast. I brought steno pads. We spent four hours there, the waitress stoically filling our coffee cups over and over as the “Pro” list filled one side of one page of the pads, and the “Con,” six sides. The decision was obvious. I made it.

I spent the next few days befuddled. I wrote apologetic, heart-broken notes, in a fog. Someone had not died; something absolutely had died. I had not lost anything; I had lost everything. I spun like a top on the pinpoint of an invalid assumption: that culture and commerce will part like the Red Sea in the face of your training, your commitment, your talent and desire.

Had I not, like any privileged, educated, self-aware person, identified my bliss? Had I not found and assiduously practiced what I was born for? Had I not fulfilled my obligation to Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Campbell, to step firmly away from the life of quiet desperation, to find and nurture the thing that makes me come alive? Where was the world meeting me half-way? Where, goddammit, was my reward?

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” asked the third grade teacher, and I said, “I want a Ph.D. I want to be an English professor.”

“Why do you want one?”

Because I loved to read and write, and I wanted to teach other people to read and write and to keep reading and writing myself. This was my castle, under which I had thought I had built all the right foundations.

Nearly thirty-five years later, I heard Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame in a TED Talk, quoting a farmer he’d met. “Following my dreams,” the farmer said, “was the worst advice anyone could have given me.”

•••

My grip on the dream had loosened by the time my husband and I decided to have kids—but only to the degree that I felt I could not physically have children safely by the time I finished a doctorate part-time, as our financial situation then dictated. I counted myself lucky to know the statistics in that regard, thinking of my brother, and the steep, cold slope between the chances of having a kid with Down’s in your earlier versus later decades of life.

So kids came first. My priorities were asserting themselves, so nascent as to be practically dripping with afterbirth of their own.

I didn’t see the grace in this at the time, although I wanted children very much. It was only what I needed to do, somewhat grumpily, without the power to simultaneously exist in two different dimensions. I want two lives, I would think to myself. Or three, or four.

You can do anything you want, only not at the same time, said a friend to me around that time. I don’t remember who it was, but in my mind, it was one of my most talented and ambitious soul sisters, and I was blessed to have plenty of them. Magazine editors, advocacy lawyers, dancers. The foment of their lovely lives seemed to lend even more gravitas to the words.

I latched onto this phrase and put it on like water wings. I repeated it to myself with every pang of intellectual hunger. I would do this thing, the thing I was born to do. Someday.

•••

So what has been the result of my decision to say no to the Ph.D.? To stay in a related job that pays double the national average with good benefits, in a decent school district, with marriage and family healthy and happy, in a big blue colonial that houses a fridge, pantry, and medicine cabinet that, by all rights, I should just empty into a cardboard box and mail to Haiti. I should mail the whole house to Haiti. This is not Sophie’s Choice.

And yet I ended up asking around anyway about our culture’s obsession with the dream come true. I nose through books and articles because if I know one thing, I know how to find the answers to life’s deepest questions: research.

My mother is a genealogist, so I asked her what American generation she felt would be most akin to our own: where we looked toward a life for our children that would be demonstrably worse than the one we experienced. “There’s always the Great Depression. But there was also one during The Panic of 1819,” she wrote to me in an email.

The what?

It was the first peacetime financial crisis of the nation. “Your ancestor George Wells got stuck administering his father-in-law Meshack Hull’s estate in New Jersey from about 1816 on, for years,” mom writes. “In 1829, he was actually jailed for being for debt, though he’d been very prosperous before. His wife and children, instead of being able to stay on the family farm, had to leave the county and, in the case of his son, find another kind of work. George disappeared around this time, and it is assumed that he died, whether by his own hand, or naturally, being a question in my mind.”

I also asked my good friend Mary, who has her own doctorate in American history. She has routinely served in the role of perspective-giver in my life: when I was battling through post-partum depression over the deeply non-crunchy-granola C-section birth of my daughter in 2003, she was the one who gently reminded me that in 1803, the baby and I both probably would have died. (Priorities.)

She felt that our closest parallel was the 1970s. “The country was gripped in an economic recession, manufacturing jobs were starting to disappear, the country seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket—Watergate, Vietnam, Iran,” she said. “One thing that historians point to is the number of disaster movies in the seventies. American exceptionalism started to crack.”

Which was interesting. Three historical periods, all different, of wondering how to suck up hardship and hand it to your child. Maybe through disaster films. World War Z, anyone?

I assumed that the American Dream came out of generations actually achieving, to some degree, the American Dream—and no one can deny the general upward trend of the standard of living. But maybe a single life, a sixty-year span if we’re lucky, is not enough to really detect that slow crawl to civil rights and antibiotics.

Could it be that there is a reverse dynamic at work: The American Dream, as panacea for the many, many times—the majority of times?—that dreams did not come true?

Mary and I also talked, at length, about the Ph.D.

She told me that she believed that every doctoral candidate has at least one Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. “Mine was to show the world that I am smart,” said my wise friend. “Why do you want one?”

And I realized that my Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. ran as follows: “To not be lonely.”

And one more truth comes clear, one more layer of scale scrubbed from the eyes.

•••

Something will work out, my mother would say to me after yet another agonized Ph.D. indecision-fest on the phone.

It’s a deeply kind catchphrase. It’s better than the first two I tried. But it’s not enough. It’s only the place where your sequined tutu, your fictitious blue bakery, your unearned doctorate, is honored by people who love you, and who know better than to make you a promise.

•••

I have enough contact with the upper echelons of academia that at times I am still and suddenly wracked with envy. I’ll hear of some lecture, some conference. Discussing Hume as the sun sets seems then to be akin to paradise lost—because that is, of course, is how all doctorates spend their time. This scenario also involves French cheese.

These flashes are decreasing, though. It’s as if the decision actually worked, in one more reversal, to help me not to long for a misplaced future, or a misspent past, but simply, be in the present. I am, in the main, happy there.

Happy, but not content. For I still don’t know how to handle the bliss question with my kids, and that seems to be of paramount importance—especially now, when I’m reasonably certain that at least climate change is going to make many more big decisions for my children than it ever (never) did for me.

When my daughter lays plans for her gumbo from the backseat, or my son chatters about being selected for The Voice, what loving parental slogan do I use? What alternative vision do I weave for my children, in the face of the seductive, beautiful, barren American dream? And how do I do this without crushing their own creativity, their sense of the possible?

It’s not you can do anything you want. And it’s not you can do everything you want, just not at the same time. It’s not even something will work out. There’s a step, a saying beyond this, something at which my fledgling Buddhist practice is trying to aim, maybe. But I’m not sure which slogan fits it best.

There may be no slogan for the control of life’s outcomes. And we do love slogans, this side of the Atlantic. No wonder America has no words for it.

•••

“Why do you want one?”

The last time someone asked me why I wanted a Ph.D., I answered in that way that happens sometimes, when a truth comes out of your mouth without any premeditation. I was older than eight, and I had dropped some of the bullshit—maybe I was ready to articulate the bottom line.

“Because I want to know something that deeply,” I said.

The friend who asked, having begun his own doctoral work that year, nodded in approval, and I felt as if I had passed some kind of test.

But I sense that the real deep knowledge—the real test—is now.

I remember the moments after making the decision finally to let go, looking at that mound of steno pad pages, pushing my cold eggs around my plate.

It felt very strongly like the night when my husband asked me to marry him, twenty years ago— the start, really, of the chain of events that had led me here.

That night, I did not scream in delight, or cry in joy, although I did a lot of that later. I wasn’t even aware, at first, of really feeling anything at all. I was, instead, waiting.

I waited for fear, for resistance, for alarms to sound, doubt to flood in, for my usual inner voices to clang and chime.

Instead, everything went still: as still as a pond before you drop in a pebble, and step back to watch what happens.

•••

DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org.

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31 thoughts on “Shelving My American Dream

  1. What an important and provocative reflection. Thank you. I imagine that I will pass the next few days mulling over the possibility that the North American dream is a patchwork of unrealized passions and desires. Additionally, your tale got my cerebral gears spinning about the context of this mythical dream and what you tell your children. In my own life journey I have come to see happiness not as the absolute fulfillment of our personally defined dreams, a string of only good and satisfied moments, but rather an embrace of the complex mixture of pain and disappointment and mediocrity and joy. On my walk along the Caminho de Santiago I didn’t get to the end—the whole damn purpose of the trip, but I got real on the journey. Maybe the possibility is to tell your daughter and son to soak up every detail along the ride and be as present as possible to every moment because right here and now is the only guarantee we’ve got. And hey, if you were talking about Hume there is no way I’d be nearly as interested in what you have to say. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this gracious, elegant articulation of reality. I wish I had figured out what you wrote so beautifully about ten years ago! Thank you for this. 😉

  3. I can’t even tell you how many ways this rings true for me — beyond that, hits in the solar plexus, uncomfortably deep. I actually watched that Dirty Jobs talk last winter and emailed my sisters the same quote you mentioned. Thank you for writing this. I have spent the last year or more struggling to find some kind of equilibrium between my ambitions and simply being present in the moment, grateful for the life I have.

  4. It’s not you can do anything you want. And it’s not you can do everything you want, just not at the same time. … i was thinking that over and over as I read your beautifully written article. With a sick husband who lost his job a year ago, a widowed mom (who lives in our home) and a 13-year old…. I just do the best I can each day and know (hope?) that life will be long enough for me to do my most important, personal work.

  5. A truly remarkable essay which as others have said hits uncomfortably close to home. For those of us raised on the “You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To” diet life’s banquet can feel over rated sometimes. As you so beautifully show life ends up requiring such compromises and a real examination of our priorities. I hope to read a great deal more of your writing–you have put into words what so many of us face. Thank you so much.

  6. Thank you for giving voice to your own grief. I am sad to know that I am not alone. I, too, wanted to be a college English professor, but one of my profs convinced me that the lack of jobs would make it an untenable career. So here I am nearly 20 years later having done very little and still wondering what I am going to be when I grow up. Blessings and peace to you.

  7. “Living the Dream” is a luxury of the rich,
    a tax on the stupid, the stubborn, and the self-absorbed,
    and/or
    that which comes at the expense of everything else.

    Well, that’s my experience with it anyway…. learned from the dreams that I live, those I have not, and those that I have had and then lost.

  8. Great writing, great story and I so appreciate you not coming up with a simple answer to a complex decision.

  9. Beautiful. I can relate in many ways, and I am also drawn to notice most (or all) of those commenting here, as well as the friends of mine who shared this on Facebook, are female. I fear and grieve that many iterations of having to shelve the American dream are still gender-driven. Thus the question of what you will tell your daughter becomes especially weighty.

  10. Yes. I followed the dream, got the Ph.D., and had been happily teaching as a part-time adjunct at a local college. It was hardly prestige and I didn’t have nearly enough time for research or even visiting with colleagues, but I figured it would be enough while the kids were little. I’ve continued to present at regional conferences (the department doesn’t pay for travel and it’s just too pricey to get to the national ones), and I even have an article that will be published this winter. And yet, this fall as I was beginning to think about my syllabus, I got the call that my class was canceled due to low enrollment. My schedule had dropped from three classes to one a couple of years earlier, and now it was none. Enrollment has dropped, and that means that I’m not scheduled for any classes this spring either. I’ve put in resumes to the other areas colleges, but they too have seen enrollments drop. I’ve been an adjunct at this institution for 12 years, and now it seems that even that–a low-paying jobs with no benefits, is too much to ask. Instead, I’m looking into what else I can do with this PhD that I finished five years ago, while trying not to get too hung up on the fact that it feels like the system is rigged. My husband, who went straight on to graduate school as I did, is a tenured prof. But for reasons that are largely out of my control, I can’t even have one part-time class.

    Supposedly a closed door means an open window, but it’s hard to see that from this vantage point. I wish you luck as you wait to see what happens after dropping the pebble. I will be watching on my end too as I attempt to start over in a new field.

  11. As someone undoubtedly older than you who was told the same thing while growing up – you can do ANYTHING – I too have come to recognize this as a lie.

    Just a few years ago, I hit an almost unbearable wall as I realized that I would entirely miss having the marriage and kids everyone expects. I never ever imagined I’d not get married or have children. EVER. Ironically the opposite of your situation, it was perhaps because I got a Ph.D. ‘out of the way’ before I felt ready to accept having a family that I was deprived of something that I assumed as part of the “FULL DREAM” package. When I woke up to that unspeakable ticking clock alarm, no one could grieve with me or understand my pain and loss. Instead, so many said they wished they were me – they envied me – having the freedom, accomplishments, education and travel opportunities. No one who longs for such things realizes that with the freedom of singleness comes a deep, inexplicable emptiness that feels like you’ve really missed the essence of life.

    However, I’ve learned over the past few years to appreciate what I have because I no longer have choices. What I have is partially good just as what you have is not all you want. The painful, naked truth is that NO ONE CAN HAVE IT ALL. Sure, some seem to come close. Priorities are really what it’s all about. Not having unlimited choices or the fulfillment of dreams. Just putting the most valuable on top and letting the rest be gravy.

    The second big lesson I’ve learned over the years is that everything in this world is passing away. Ultimately, our priorities need to center on what is Eternal. That means we are all called to live for people – whether your own children/spouse or other people you have to more fully release (harder but no less noble) – we are to invest for God’s sake. It’s all about human beings, not accomplishment nor money nor things nor comfort. Everything else is frosting.

  12. Thank you for such a great meditation –on everything. I want to go find that TED talk you mention now. The way I’ve always heard the expression is: “You can do anything you want; you just can’t do EVERYTHING you want. You have to choose.” That seems a little more true to me and is what I tell students. My son (6 years old) burst into tears the other day when we were reading a book about presidents and I said he couldn’t be one because he wasn’t born in the United States. And trying to console him it occurred to me that I had no idea why I felt loss on his behalf when my adult self knew that the chances of him becoming President were microscopic in any case –but the dream dies hard, I think. We want it all. Thanks for the great read.

  13. I really loved your essay. There are so many shades and levels to the American Dream… Despite everything, I think we have to keep telling our kids that they can do anything they want. Otherwise it seems pointless to raise a family, or to get out of bed in the morning. Life will present its limitations in due time — until then dream needs to live on in all of us.

  14. There are no easy answers, and though I personally love a good sound bite, I’ve not yet found one that captures how to direct one’s life. I think continue to try to better the world around you while also bettering yourself is the nub of it. There are plenty of ups and downs in that journey, but I like to think that you and I are both generally trending upward. And that are kids are too.

  15. It is obvious to me that you do not need a Ph.D. to make a contribution to the world – of writing, because you are a gifted writer.

  16. I can’t thank all of you enough for your thoughtful, generous, supportive comments. Jennifer says the site has gotten upwards of 2000 unique visitors so far since this posting. I can’t say this is going viral, but it’s astonishing to me, at any rate. Maybe going bacterial. It’s wonderful.

    This is the beauty of virtual writing, and why I love blogging so much as well: triangulating across multiple perspectives gets you so much farther than you can ever get on your own.

    To those who have so kindly complimented me personally: thank you. I am so grateful.

    To those who have suggested ways through the thicket of kid discussion around outcomes: thank you. This is like having a surprise squadron of the best kind of grandparents show up. I’ll be thinking over all of your wisdom for a long time to come.

    To those who have voiced compassion from their own experiences of loss, anger and uncertainty, around graduate work and otherwise: Thank you. I would not have predicted this essay to have touched this kind of nerve. I am humbled by your witness and your companionship.

  17. Thank you for this.

    Except for the husband in academia, my story is almost identical to the comment by Lisa – PhD in the past several years, teaching as an adjunct for about ten years, lower enrollments and cancelled class this spring, with no promise of a job next fall. Fortunately, I never did hang my future on the tenure track, so it’s not as devastating as for most PhDs who find themselves cut adrift from the academia dream.

    But to your point about the larger dream: I’m in my early 50s, and perhaps being of a slightly older vintage (or possibly just the tone of my family), I didn’t grow up with the “you can do anything” mantra. What I heard was, “Don’t count on it.” Not as inspiring, but I have to say that the implicit challenge was part of why I have always tended to over-achieve.

    I see the impact of the have-it-all mentality, on friends pursuing doctorates (for whom I hope the abysmal job-market odds will be favorable), and in my younger son and his friends – fresh out of college – who still believe that they will find the ideal career in the ideal place and can have lives without any regrets. I watch my older son, who has what may indeed be his dream job, but now has a young wife struggling with physical health and anxiety issues that they never envisioned when they were falling in love. So many people find their dreams shattered without having any power, any choice.

    I’m a historian, and like your mother and history-professor friend, I’m very aware that the reality has always been one of struggle and difficult compromises. I’ve also found in my own life that I often look back and realize that the thing I thought I wanted would, indeed, have been the wrong thing for me.

    You have achieved fabulous things. A PhD would not have made them any sweeter. Now you can take comfort in knowing that you’re showing your children not only the value of dreaming but also the value of knowing when to take responsibility, face reality, and move on. Good for you.

  18. I was already thinking this when you mentioned Buddhism. Kaching! Try “The source of all unhappiness is our wants and desires”. I fall back on that one *a lot*.

  19. Wow, what an honest reflection. Thank you. I very much identify with your statement, “I want two lives, I would think to myself. Or three, or four.” I’m the same. I have two beautiful daughters, an international career in education, a job I absolutely love and I’m finishing my MFA in poetry this year. And yet, there is more I want to do, and more I thought I would have done by now. My husband teases me anytime I have a new idea because there isn’t enough time in this lifetime to finish it all. I feel fortunate to have so many passions and interests, and yet the burden of time feels pressing. I guess adulthood is choice and priority. As you say in your post, you can do anything, you just can’t do everything!

  20. Life is long. I have friends who got their PhDs after their children were grown. If you want to learn something deeply, that does not have to be dependent on a formal education, just in persistence in reading, communicating, learning. Best of luck to you

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