This one's a taboo buster, people, buckle up.
I want to talk about grief. Because, apparently -- and kind of unbeknownst to me -- it's what I've been writing about regularly. Apparently, in fact, it's even the subject of my book, Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career -- and Life -- That's Right For You. But I didn't realize this until I got a long email from a dear friend who lost her father last year. It was a catching-up variety email, but she'd read the book, and ended the note with a sharp aside:
P.S. Your book is unmistakably about loss. Do we just need to grieve more?
Here comes some wisdom, (from Daria Todor, an Employment Assistance Counselor, career coach, and psychotherapist who has dealt with thousands of women in the workplace for the past 20 years). "Every decision entails trade-off, and it entails commitment," she says. "And with that comes the sense of grief and loss. You make a commitment to one thing, you are by definition turning your back on other options. Not knowing how to grieve a loss is really powerful. And I believe that a lot of what shows up in a therapist's office as depression may be a form of this grieving that is a natural part of growing up. And so there's an avoidance of making a decision because of the pain threshold."
Coincidentally, soon after I received that email, I was on a radio program, and the host of the show -- a dude -- brought up another anecdote from the book; something that he just couldn't get his head around.
Chloe's story cuts to the chase: "I was walking home from work, having a low self-esteem day, and I saw this sign in a storefront. It was of three smiling women, around my age, and I just thought to myself, I bet they all have kids."
Chloe doesn't even want to have children -- an assertion she reiterated before admitting that, nevertheless, it didn't stop her tears. "I just feel like life is passing me by."
For the record, Chloe is amazing and enviable in her own right: She's lived and worked everywhere from New York City to Brazil, Mexico to Southern California, and she is successful, beautiful, talented, and happily married. But those things never seem to matter much when we're confronted with the green-grassed monster; when we catch a glimpse of the place where that road we opted not to travel may have led.
And so I answered -- and my answer had to do with grief: Consciously, we might not want to have kids, but as women, I think the vast majority of us grew up with the unconscious assumption that we would. And so, I said to the baffled man-host, maybe Chloe just needed to take a moment, to allow herself to consciously grieve the children she'd never have; the mother she'd never be.
(Interestingly, though, even while the words were spilling forth, I don't think I would have said that the matter at hand was grief. I needed my friend, my friend who's in the thick of it and can therefore recognize it, I guess, to point it out for me. Even when what she was pointing out were, in fact, my own words.)
And that idea applies not just to the kids question. For women who've been told we can do anything -- well, I think that somewhere, deep down (and not so deep down), there lies the assumption that we will do everything. And so whenever we sign on to do one thing, there's a whole bunch of other things we're signing off on. Maybe we don't ever write them off outright, but, with every day that passes, certain dreams grow more and more out of reach. And maybe, just maybe, all of that leaves us with a little bit of latent grief, lurking within. Maybe that grief is showing up as something else, but, more and more, I believe that it's there.
Feeling uncomfortable yet? Me too. I also happen to think that this whole issue is made worse by the fact that our culture is not exactly what you'd call 'grief-friendly.' I can think of few subjects more roundly avoided.
And I think Todor makes another important point: that we avoid making decisions not just because we've been told we can do anything and are therefore holding out for the perfect thing, but also because we're avoiding the pain of closing a door. (The -cide in "decide", after all, is the same -cide you'll find in words like homicide, suicide ... A decision is, when you think about it, the death of a choice.) We're avoiding the grieving that will entail. And no wonder: Is anything less allowed in our culture? Where happiness is the holy grail, and achieving it in its most perfect form is national sport? Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, and spending our days adrift upon it, driven by its current, well, where does that get us, other than deeper?
The whole thing just kind of makes me wonder: Would the decisions we make every day, big and small, be so hard if we knew how to grieve? If our culture recognized it, allowed it, showed us how to do it in a healthy way? Would it make decisions easier, if, rather than hopping on a raft on that river, we were allowed -- and encouraged -- to recognize the shadow side of our choices: those things we aren't choosing? And to take a moment to be sad, to say goodbye?
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