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.
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.