The breakdown and building up of me

So, I have this blog post that I’ve kind of wanted to write for a while, but I haven’t really been able to put the whole thing into words until I finally hashed it out with my dear, dear friend Susan. Plus, it’s a bit heavier than what I usually post about (cooking, projects, awkwardness involving bodily functions), and Lord knows I hate going all existential on you.

But when Susan finally put what I was feeling into words for me (because it was something she had been feeling herself), it was immensely comforting. I’ve always been the type of person who has been comforted by the right words. I might know I feel weird or off, but if I can pinpoint exactly why (and write the crap out of it), suddenly the obstacle seems immensely easier to scale.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re feeling the same way, hopefully you get some peace out of a) hearing it spelled out and b) knowing you’re not the only one. And if you’re not…well…welcome to my journey of self-discovery.

Here goes.

My whole life, I wanted to be a writer. As I entered my late teens/early 20s, that dream gradually evolved into wanting to be a journalist. So we’re talking a dream that was a lifetime (albeit a short one…Lord knows I’m not that old) in the making.

And you know what? I was damn good at what I did. Right from the get-go, it seemed like I was doing what I was meant to do. I mean, I loved it, and I was good at it. AND I was successful. I moved seamlessly up the ranks of my college magazine. I got all the “prestigious” internships I applied for. I was even that girl whose magazine created a job for her after her internship because they liked her so much. I’m not bragging — I’m just trying to paint you an accurate picture of what my life was like when everything started to shift.

It’s difficult to explain to people who aren’t or don’t want to be journalists exactly what is so intoxicating about being in journalism. I mean, sure, they get the glamour of seeing your name in print, talking to famous people, and appearing on camera. But I’m talking about what it’s like to be in journalism. As Susan put it, “The salaries are low, the hours are killer, and the competition for jobs is fierce.” But, as she went on, “And to be honest, we were winning that game. Even if the success didn’t always feel like success, it was.”

And when you’re sitting at your desk at 9:30 at night waiting for an email approving the newsletter that has to get out that night, wondering if it will ever come, if you will ever get to eat a dinner that doesn’t cost 75 cents and come out of a vending machine, it’s easy to forget that you’re winning at anything.

Because you spent your last lifetime dreaming about this. About the seeing your name in print and talking to famous people and getting to appear on camera. You even joked cavalierly with your peers about how adorably poor and hungry and exhausted you would be, your voices full of pity for the ones who were settling for more “average” careers.

You know how people say things like, “I can’t pinpoint exactly when things started to change”? Well, I can pinpoint the exact moment I started having doubts about my lifelong dream.

It was 8:30 on a Friday night, and I had volunteered to stay late with an editor to finish a few slideshows and things that had to be done before we left for the weekend. I had planned on making a quick trip to Long Island for the evening (so in the throws of romance were Joey and I that even if we could only see each other for a couple of hour, after an hour commute each way, it was a better alternative to not seeing each other for two weeks), but my gallant offer had squashed those plans. As the hours ticked by (none of which I would be compensated for, just to clarify for those of you who have never been in the industry), I started to notice that my editor didn’t seem as anxious to leave as I did. I timidly asked her if she was in the office that late every night. She answered yes, and there was a note of questioning in her voice. As if she was saying, “Why wouldn’t I?”

Though I brushed off the feeling I felt then for the better part of two years, that was the moment. That was when I first started to doubt my decision. My life path, if you want to get all “big picture” about it.

But when you’ve spent every second since you were 18 trying to achieve a goal, it’s really, really hard to look that inner 18-year-old in the face and tell her you’re giving up the dream. Because it’s really hard to look at it any other way, even if you’re not so much giving it up as realizing it’s not your dream anymore. As Susan said (because she says things so much better than I do when it’s my problem), “I feel like the journalism world that I wanted to work in doesn’t exist anymore. If I’m going to work for little pay, I need job security. And I want to work in a positive environment, and I don’t want to see empty offices….I never though I’d be one of those people with a career change at age 24.”

And THAT is hard to realize because you’re essentially realizing you’re not that 18-year-old anymore. And maybe you know a little bit better than she did.

Before I go into the next part of my revelation, I want to clarify that I really am excited about my new job. I think I’ll have a lot of opportunities to be creative, and it’s not entirely different from the journalism I imagined I’d go into (or as Susan so eloquently put it, that used to exist). That being said, I’m not working for a publication. I might still write, but it’s not the same as reporting. So I acknowledged that I was making a shift in a more permanent way than I did with the current job (which, if I’m perfectly honest, I never saw myself staying at forever anyway). I acknowledged that journalism doesn’t make me happy enough to endure the downsides anymore, and I was okay with that.

And then last Friday happened. Last Friday, I was sitting at work when my phone rang. (Quick backstory: A couple of months ago I interviewed at a small publishing company. They were looking to hire a temporary assistant editor that they were planning on turning into a permanent position. I had two interviews, they really liked me, but they ended up hiring from within. Ok, you’re caught up.) It was the editor. They were hiring a senior web producer and had immediately thought of me.

It’s really funny how timing affects things. If they had called me two weeks ago, I would have taken it and stopped looking for new jobs (at least for a while). But instead, they called me all of one week after I had accepted a job I was excited about in a location I was BEYOND excited about. My rational side knew that the web job would mean keeping up the commute and probably taking a pay cut. My journalist side knew it would mean writing and editing a magazine and getting a title I hadn’t expected to bear for at least another five years.

I quietly explained how flattered I was, but that I had accepted another position. I later emailed her an additional thank-you, because really, it was extremely nice of her to offer and it it’s always nice to be wanted.

I was (am) still happy with the decision I made, but the niggling feeling of letting myself (or rather, my 18-year-old self) down prevailed. And then today, a friend who works for a magazine in the city sent out an email that they were hiring. Normally, I would have pounced on it, drafting up a cover letter and getting it back to her within the hour. This time, I calmly returned to my inbox (though I didn’t delete the email).

I know this is getting a bit “the lady doth protest too much,” but I swear, I wasn’t feeling disappointment because I wished this opportunity had come up before I accepted the new job. Even though I did imagine what it would be like if it had. And I started to feel weird and off, and I didn’t have the words to explain why. Until I started explaining the situation to Susan, and she put words to my inner turmoil.

I told her that I don’t feel like the same person anymore. After my conversation with Samantha last week, we both discussed how we felt like maybe we’re not journalism people anymore now that we know the lifestyle that it requires. And here is where Susan got kind of brilliant (I’m just going to quote it because paraphrasing brilliance is stupid):

“Matt and I actually had that same conversation, too. It’s one thing to say ‘I don’t care about money and hours!’ when you’re 18. It’s another to do it and be like ‘wow, I can’t live on this salary, and these hours are really killing my relationships.’ But it’s hard not to have that gut reaction. I even kind of had that when I saw you type that! It’s hard to do a 180. Because just because you don’t necessarily want to do journalism now doesn’t mean you don’t like it, or even love it for that matter. But you have different values now, and know other things are important and also demand your attention. And who knows? Maybe you’ll go back to it one day.”

Can I just say, Oh. My. God. Because that is exactly it. I don’t want to do it anymore, not really, but I still love it. And maybe it seems really obvious to everyone else, but it was probably one of the most striking and painful realizations of my life. Is that extreme to say? I don’t care, that’s how it felt. It was like, BAM. That’s it. That’s what you’re feeling. Those are the words you couldn’t find.

It’s not even about the terror of not knowing what you’re doing with your life. It’s not about the overwhelming feeling of “looking for a job” when you have no idea what you’re looking for. It’s realizing that just because breakups are hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t break up.

While I was reeling, Susan kept on being awesome.

“But I also think it’s good. I mean, why am I making some of the decisions that I am? Well, because now I have a boyfriend I’m crazy about and I want to be with him. And you’re wanting to work normal hours and be in Long Island because you have a family!”

If I hadn’t met Joey, hadn’t gotten married (and assumedly hadn’t had a similar scenario with anyone else), I can say with almost no doubt that I would probably still be in journalism. Would I be happy? I don’t know. What I do know is that I am extremely happy with the way things did work out. And just because Joey is the type of guy to read this and think, “Did I mess things up for her?” (yeah, it’s pretty much the most important thing to him that I’m happy all the time…did I mention I’m extremely happy with my decision?), no, meeting the love of my life and pursuing that relationship did not “mess up” anything. It changed the game. The lifestyle required by journalism (at least the kind and level I was shooting for) is better suited to single people. There, I said it. Obviously it can be done in a relationship and even a marriage, but the relationships and marriages I saw people around me having were not the ones I wanted.

I wanted dinner with my husband after work. I wanted knowing what time I would be home so we could make plans with friends. I wanted to enjoy my marriage, not just check it off on my life’s to-do list. And no offense to 18-year-old Justine, but I’m pretty sure I’ve wanted that since 2-year-old Justine first toddled around with a Barbie and Ken doll.

So regardless of when it happened, there would have come this point in time where I would not have been satisfied with being a successful career person. And attaining satisfaction would have required a change.

And the whole “how would I feel if my life had turned out differently” business doesn’t even matter, because my life turned out like this. And I would marry Joey again this afternoon if I could. Jobs are going to come and go, but that man is not something you let slip away.

So why is there any inner turmoil at all? Because I loved journalism. LOVED. And I don’t know if I will ever love a job as much as I loved that. I think I probably won’t, because I look back on it like you look back on your first crush. And it’s all kind of hazy and rosy and you forget that he chewed with his mouth open and sometimes didn’t return your calls and ended up liking that girl who sat behind you in math better anyway. You just remember the good times and how he made your heart beat faster. (Does anyone else feel a little weird that I always compare careers to relationships? I feel like there’s probably a lot of analysis to be done there…another time. This post is long enough as is.)

And to be fair, journalism IS exciting and interesting and you meet cool people and you get to feel involved in the world as it spins around you. There are probably going to be people who read this and are like, “Huh? What are you TALKING about, journalism is the BOMB.” (Ok, they might not think exactly that. Because, as we have established, that is an outdated phrase.) But they are going to disagree with me entirely. And you know what? That is EXACTLY the type of person who SHOULD be in journalism. They probably describe themselves proudly as workaholics and brag about how late they stayed at the office and how many events they have this week. The love the rush of too many cups of coffee and smile pityingly at their non-journalist friends when they complain about the doldrums of the corporate life. They have different priorities than I do. And if they don’t, well, their own existential crisis is probably right around the bend.

But the fact is, it’s how I feel. And maybe no other job will ever make me feel as fulfilled as journalism used to (or at least how I thought it would), but nothing in the world makes me feel more fulfilled than my marriage and the family I have. I crave stability with excitement peppered in — not the other way around. In terms of domesticity, I’m somewhere between the exotic pet parrot and a housecat. But, to be honest, I was never really that exotic anyway.

I think the purpose of this incredibly cathartic blog post was to say, I’m giving myself permission to have a new dream. And I give myself permission to miss journalism while still understanding it’s not the right fit for me. I now have my permission to be happy even if I’m not doing what I used to think I should be doing. Because, you know what? I can be a writer no matter what my business cards say. Heck, if you’ve stuck with me this long, you’ve seen first hand that I am still capable of writing (even if it does get a bit scattered and ramble-y at times). And for my friends who are still in the business, hit me up if you ever need a freelancer! And if I change my mind in a year, I’ll email you.

Wow. If talking it out made me feel better, writing it out actually put me in a happy mood. To those of you who just don’t care, I apologize if you stuck it out to the end only to still not really care. Please accept this post about narwhals as my recompense. And for those of you that hear me or disagree but still think my self-growth is an interesting case study, thanks for reading.

9 thoughts on “The breakdown and building up of me

  1. I can definitely relate to this. The hours weren’t so bad at my last job, but I wasn’t happy enough to keep at it and make just enough money to “get by.” The constant money stress was a huge part of why NYC sucked the life right out of me. Even though I’m pretty sure I don’t want to stay in my current job “forever,” it’s a much better situation and I’m a lot happier. I might eventually want to go back into writing and editing, but I know it would most likely come with a pay cut! Maybe ask me again when my student loans are paid off…

  2. There’s an entrepreneur in Des Moines who believes that traditional careers are evolving to be more like the film industry — we “audition” for “parts,” accept the parts that are consistent with our lifestyles and values at that exact moment, and then move on to new parts as our own lives and values change. It’s a dramatic shift from the lifelong careers our parents (and even our older peers) pursued, but it gives us a sense of freedom other generations never had. It’s scary to abandon the dream (or even the plan), and I’m not sure I trust my own intuition enough yet to do it, but kudos to you for trusting yours.

  3. For what it’s worth, I love reading your blog, and as a general rule….I HATE reading. Glad you’re happy with your decision. It certainly seems like a wise one. And for the record, the thought of you with a Barbie and Ken is just flat-out amusing. I would have guessed your only involvement with those two would have been holding them hostage to torment your little sister.

  4. Justine, I really admire your honesty, and I can tell that you live your life with purpose and intention. I struggle with a lot of these same thoughts on a regular basis – the difference is that I haven’t yet met the person I want to marry so it’s a little bit easier for me to be selfish and “experiment” with my life, since I’m the only person suffering the consequences. This is neither a better nor worse way to live – it’s just a different way and the way available to me right now.

    Though I’m not exactly pursuing journalism, I think my desired career path is very similar. I want to write in any way that I can. I want to talk about writing with others and be completely immersed in it. So far, I’ve found that teaching writing and then writing freelance on the side allows me to do those things most freely.

    Over the summer, when I wasn’t teaching, I had a job in marketing, which is a field that has always interested me. At the end of the summer, my supervisor gave me an ultimatum: decide whether I want to stay with the company and be hired as a full-time employee with benefits (over the summer, I was only an independent contractor w/o vacation or benefits) or basically choose teaching/writing and give up the marketing gig completely. I understood why he was doing this – he wanted a steady employee who could grow with the company, and I couldn’t give him that with my erratic teaching schedule.

    I couldn’t just choose teaching/writing over the marketing job because the teaching/writing wasn’t going to pay me enough to allow me to support myself. I could find another part-time job to supplement the loss, but part-time jobs that pay a decent wage are not easy to find. I had been looking for most of the summer.

    I spent many sleepless nights trying to decide if teaching/freelancing would be a dead end. Could I grow in the job? Would I be poor forever? I was SICK of not having any vacations, sick of not having any benefits, etc. Here was a job being presented to me. I liked the company, I liked my coworkers, and I liked the job, even though it wasn’t perfect (what job is?). I considered taking the full-time marketing job.

    The day that I was supposed to meet with my supervisor to discuss the BIG DECISION, which I still hadn’t really decided (I was going to ask him to let me have a few more days to think about it), I was offered a job teaching two more classes at another school in the area. Though I wouldn’t be making as much money as with the marketing gig, I would be making enough with both teaching jobs combined to support myself, though barely. I took the job, told my very shocked supervisor the next day, and started to worry about how I was going to cut my already very limited budget.

    So far, everything has worked out. My supervisor at my marketing job was very understanding of my decision and has even let me do some freelance hours while they find someone to replace me – even then, I will be able to work a few hours here and there. Also, another very flexible position happened to fall into my lap through my freelance connections.

    I’m not gonna lie – I work A LOT. When I’m not working, I’m working out or eating. The only friends I see are the ones that matter to me the most, and I’m really lucky that they are so understanding of my demanding schedule. I am dating someone, but we only get to see each other on the weekends. Even then, I’ve had to do work while he watches the game on TV (or whatever else), but at least we get to cuddle. I am very lucky that he understands, but I know the relationship may never get to the next level, simply because I am so committed to my work right now. I have been very honest with him about that aspect of my life.

    I admire you for choosing your relationship over just ONE possible career path, and I probably would have done the same thing at a different time in my life, had the circumstances been correct. But I have been disappointed too many times by romantic relationships to believe that they are going to fulfill me any more than my work and my “calling” will fulfill me. I sometimes joke that writing is my boyfriend.

    You are very lucky to have found someone who makes you feel that he is most of what you need. I envy you in that respect. And you should never have any regrets about your decision, though I don’t think you will. You have to choose that which compels you the most at any given time. At this point in your life, your relationship is most important. Being an adult means not being able to have everything but being super grateful for and making the most of what you do have.

    And who’s to say you won’t end up loving your new job? People change many times over the course of their lives. Perhaps what they wanted to pursue at age 18 isn’t the thing they will end up loving when they are 40!

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