“Just move your legs and walk. Into a brand new world. It’s that easy.”
—–Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
I love listening to podcasts. Actually, most of my friends do, as do my mostly grown children. There’s something so inviting and intimate about listening in on other people’s conversations– especially when the dialogue is professionally edited, and the guests converse capably on clever and compelling topics. I love listening to This American Life, On Being, Freakonomics, and RadioLab, with headphones while running, on speaker while driving, or alone in the dark before I fall asleep.
Several months ago, my friend Nick and I were talking about listening to our favorite shows and we got excited about a topic we felt people rarely recognize or tout. As we drank beer and brainstormed about some of the most fascinating people we know, we realized those individuals all made conscious choices to significantly shift their previously planned life trajectories. They left who they were, without any assurance of who they would become. We looked at each other and we knew we had our theme. The theme of our friendship, and the theme of our new podcast.
Semper fidelis. Once a Marine, always a Marine. In the community in which I grew up, we pledged specifically to be brave, loyal, and true. As Americans, we pledge allegiance to our flag, and in culturally in The United States, we undeniably value loyalty, perseverance, and dedication as qualities we admire in people of good character. We’ve been trained to think that winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win, we’ve been taught a deep fear of losing what we’ve invested, and we perceive walking away as a weakness.
For the most part, people don’t like to talk about what they’ve left.
But sometimes leaving is the only choice we can conscionably make. Sometimes what we leave behind, what we lose, what we grieve, changes us in such profound ways, we can no longer recognize the person who clung to the safety of what was known.
(Shameless plug: go to leftpodcast.com for powerful stories from ordinary people who have overcome extraordinary obstacles, who have consciously and courageously abandoned previously held beliefs and chosen alternative routes, and where those journeys have taken them.)
The first significant place I left, I was labeled a quitter, and that word held a thickness of shame I couldn’t cut with a knife for over a decade. But eventually, I discovered a happier woman waiting for me on this side of that seemingly insurmountable track.
And so I have continued to explore this option, to quit when there is no solid reason to stay. I have left things I thought I couldn’t relinquish, things I thought I’d never survive letting go of, people and places and identities that formed me, which I strongly believed I couldn’t live without. I’ve left my family of origin, the religious organization into which I was born, many homes and cities, academic institutions, and relationships that restricted the person I wanted to become.
Most recently, I’ve left motherhood as my defining identity. Looking back, I was a naive little girl, still in school, when I gave birth to twin daughters. Instead of investigating who I was, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go throughout my twenties (as I trust my daughters will do), I asked myself what they needed, and I made my decisions accordingly. Of course, I don’t regret my devotion to my family. I stayed with my husband and gave birth to more children, creating a microcosm for them and their animals in the ways I thought would make them safe and help them grow. It was a strong choice and a worthy focus for my time and dedication. But now those first pretty little babies are about to turn 22. My son is 20. My babygirl is 16. They are confident, healthy, happy and well-adjusted young people, with steady relationships and attainable career goals. Of course, the youngest still needs structure and guidance and relentless chauffeuring, but none of them really need me to define myself solely or even predominantly by their needs anymore.
What does that even mean?
It means for the first time in my life I have to ask myself what I want.
I realize that this is a first world problem. Still. It is, perhaps, the hardest and least likely question most first world women will ever ask themselves.