Sunday, July 24, 2011

Intellectual Underachievement or The Beginnings of a Mid-Life Crisis (or could it, in fact, be PMS?)

The phrase, "intellectual underachievement," has recently come into my life. It was mentioned with the best of intentions and has, I think, been used to encourage and inspire at least one person who is very precious to me.

But it has left me wanting to punch strangers in the face.

Having been a Housewife for sixteen years, I have long since come to grips with the inevitable, "Just A," in front of my occupational title. I used to make a stink when someone was ignorant enough to use it, but now I merely indulge in a secret condescending smile and remind myself that they have no idea what it takes to do my job, poor devils.

I have learned to take great pride in what I do, in the richness it contributes to my marriage, in the blessing it gives to my husband, in the character it instills in my children, in the joy it builds in our household (even as I am not doing anywhere near a perfect job).

But I still struggle with how to use the gifts God gave me in the life He planned for me. Some women seem to have been born to run a household. Not me. I do not have gifts in the areas of cleanliness, organization, concentration, cookery, teaching, promptness, hospitality or even discipline. I have learned to adapt and develop ways to compensate for my weaknesses, but none of those come naturally to me.

My gifts are in areas that would seem to fit in another kind of life: writing, humour, music, creativity, discernment. Oh, sure, there are definitely times when those things can be used in the life of a Housewife (humour and discernment have been particularly life-saving for me many, many times!) but, truly, they are the interests and pursuits of a woman of leisure or starving artist.

Obviously, as I am known to the world as a Housewife and not a Famous Soprano, I decided against woman of leisure/starving artist a long time ago. And, after a few rocky years of frustration, I decided to truly embrace the life I had chosen and try to use my God-given gifts to do the best I could.

I learned to cook. I've gotten pretty good at it. I have learned a lot (though I am still learning) about keeping house. I don't like it, but I can do it. I have become a homeschooler (though I still can't believe it). I have single-handedly saved our family untold amounts of money by learning economy and frugality. And along the way, I became content and even fulfilled.

And then...enter "intellectual underachievement". Someone very dear to me casually mentioned that an acquaintance of theirs, whom I have never met, used this phrase to describe my life. It was not intended as a criticism, but as an understanding of the sacrifices I have made for my family. It was intended in the most gentle and respectful of ways. But it started a chain reaction in me...

At first I was offended. So, I'm an intellectual underachiever because I'm "Just A Housewife"? I'm stupid because I chose to stay home and raise my kids? I'm wasting my brains here in this suburban nightmare (another phrase I heard this week that was used to describe housewifery)?

Then I got to thinking. Maybe I could be achieving more, intellectually. Isn't that exactly what was frustrating me so much in those early years? Didn't I start doing crossword puzzles almost religiously every single night because I felt like my brain was going to shrivel up and flake apart if I didn't do something with it?

And then I talked to Mom. Mom is one of the sharpest people I know. With her brains, wit, common-sense, wisdom, talent and determination, she could have had what the world would call a "brilliant career". Instead she poured herself into brilliantly raising four intelligent, witty, sensible, wise, talented and determined daughters. She was home full-time until my youngest sister was well into elementary school. Then she went out and got herself a job in a hospital. She took it because she could work the graveyard shift, come home, get us off to school, then sleep while we were gone for the day. We girls (there are four of us) were old enough by then to ease her household load and I vividly remember me and Dharma (the two oldest) making dinner and doing the laundry, though I know we did not do nearly as much as we could have.

Mom worked in one position for a while and then had the opportunity to take a few classes, improve her education and get a better position which she did with gusto! She continued to do that until she wound up with a job in a very successful surgical center that she loved! It was exciting and stimulating, she was able to meet and help people (two of her great loves), and she contributed to our family's income in a way she never thought she could. And she did it all without taking time away from her children. I remember being so very proud of her!

When I talked to Mom about this intellectual underachievement, she said two things that surprised me. The first was that on the first night of her first job at the hospital, she was terrified. I have never thought of my mother as terrified of anything. The second was that, although she was the first woman in her family to do anything in the way of intellectual achievement, she wished she had set the bar higher for us girls! She was proud of what she had accomplished but wished it had occurred to her to instead go to college, get a degree, do something more with the intellect with which she's been given. This completely startled me!

But then it inspired me! I am now at the point in my life where Mom was when she got the job in the hospital. I need to think about what I'm going to do after they've left the nest. Now is the time to start preparing for that time. Why can't I go back to school? Why can't I become an expert on something? Why can't I acquire some marketable skills? Maybe I've just been using my children as an excuse to not take any risks, try anything new...

I realized something: it isn't intellect that I lack, it's vision! A clear idea of what to do with the gifts God's given me! Suddenly, I had the desire and the confidence to achieve my potential! Suddenly I was seeing an upcoming opportunity instead of an looming sadness!

For days I was high on optimism. I had been inspired! I was going to look possibility in the face and embrace adventure! I was going to dig out my old, dusty dreams and see if they still fit! If I can learn to cook, if I can survive without a dryer, if I can homeschool my son, I can earn a Bachelor's degree, write a book, start singing again!

And then everything came to a screeching, crashing halt. I talked to The Viking. No, no, no, no, no, that doesn't sound right! It wasn't like that at ALL! Let me 'splain (No, there is too much. Let me sum up)...

My patient, level-headed, much more practical, much less fantastical husband began doing what he does best: asking me questions to help me formulate a plan. He asked what I am hoping to accomplish. He asked why I wanted to accomplish it. He tried to discuss with me my options for getting a degree that would enable me to find a job. He basically asked, "So what are you going to do with your new-found knowledge?" And the more he asked, the more deflated I became.

And I realized it wasn't just that he was killing my buzz. He was shining the cold, hard light of reality on all of my grandiose ideas. What DO I want to go to school for? And what AM I going to do with the training and education I get? If I wanted to be a teacher, nurse, or lawyer my course of study would be clear and practical, but I don't. If I were concerned primarily with finding a job, I could take a course in whatever the fastest growing field is right now but I don't even know what that is! And I don't want to spend the time and money to go to school only to wind up working in a cubicle, waiting tables, or cleaning offices, things I could probably do without the trouble of going to school.

I could finish my degree in Vocal Performance or get a new one in English literature, but then what? Sit around the house for another 16 years admiring my degree with absolutely no idea what to do with it? It's not like I've had to watch opportunities pass me by simply because I didn't have a degree in something.

Which brings me right back to where I had started. It's not lack of intellect or education or even vision that keeps me in a state of underachievement. I don't know what it is, but it's not me waving opportunities by, saying, "Oh, heavens no, not for me, thanks, I'm just a Housewife." Maybe it's just where God has me right now. And maybe this is all He has for me at this time. And maybe the lesson I am to learn from it is contentment and obedience.

I just wish I hadn't taken this side trip into fantasyland again. I wish I hadn't let my eyes stray to the other side of the fence, let my mind dream of greener pastures sure to be found elsewhere. I had gotten to the point where I was content and peaceful and I certainly did not need this kind of disruption!

So this is why I find myself wanting to vent my frustrations on a complete (and well-meaning) stranger. And why folding the laundry, doing the dishes, and doing the grocery shopping are sounding more dreadful to me than ever.

But duty, as ever, she calls...


Leila said...

Well, I could say a lot about all this.
I'll confine myself to -- aren't you defining "achievement" by a sort of random (albeit commonly accepted, I will grant you) yardstick?

Isn't it arbitrary to judge intellectual achievement, especially, by degrees and jobs? I mean, I could agree that measuring "swimming achievement" might be accomplished by looking at the results of races -- although, even there, someone could achieve real swimming greatness by doing a few laps of a harbor every day, whatever the weather and whoever the audience. (My husband had an uncle who did this.... )

Intellectual achievement is so very hard to pin down, and I'm afraid that a fairly intellectually unimpressive society (ours) has reduced it to the least convincing standard -- perhaps to absolve itself of any real thought on the matter?

And what about the value of the hidden life? Who was the most fabulous person ever to live, apart from Our Lord? Why, his mother. Her life was hidden and devoted to service. No degrees there....

What about the value of your home for your children as they grow older? Your role as a grandmother and helper to the children's grandfather?

Apart from all sorts of things that will unfold as your adventure does... things you know nothing of right now because, well, you have something else to do!

Study and prepare, but why worry about degrees and jobs? It's so paltry compared to what you can do. Or, if it's truly important and the Lord's will, that will become clear!

That's my pep talk.

Pippajo said...

Leila, you are absolutely right. And thank you for the pep talk. I think I just got myself all turned around and had stopped looking at my compass.

Daria said...

Ok, as the match that lit this wildfire, and whether or not it is suitable, I just want to clarify a bit here. The phrase "Just a" was never put in the mix by me or the person who put it to me. If it was it was unintentional and unknowingly done. And I certainly don't hold the opinion that it belongs in front of any of your occupational titles. Your friend is right of course, but the context in which the initial phrase was used and intended to mean was the common standard. And it wasn't meant in anyway to be degrading or offensive or anything really, just a statement of fact. And when you are using that yardstick it is very true that when seen from the common outside view, none of us have achieved anywhere near our full intellectual (aka brain power, booksmarts, that sort of thing) potential. Again, I emphasize that that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when looked at the way your friend has described. I agree wholeheartedly with her. Basically the guy was trying to say that we are all four of us very intelligent and smart and clever and could have done magical, spectacular, grandiose things, taken the world by storm or gone to the moon, but didn't. Not that running a home and rearing children isn't magical or spectacular, or even grandiose. I guess it's just a matter of perspective. Or I'm just a callous snob who hates the idea of housewifery and motherhood. Well, I probably am that anyway. But I also think that you can do any of those things that you want to do. You certainly are capable. And I think that if one leaves those gifts and natural talents all untapped, one gets pretty unhappy. I think you need to use some of those things just to stay sane. If that makes sense. I'm not putting this as well as I could, but it's 2 AM and I used a lot of brain power to make sure the first half of my comment was satisfactory.

Pippajo said...

Daria, I do not want you to feel in any way responsible for any of the feelings or thoughts I had about this topic. I have never, not once, felt that you ever looked at me (or any of us) as "JUST" a housewife. I have always known that you are 100% supportive of what we are doing. You do not need to defend yourself in any way, shape or form.

And I get that the point was that we sisters are all impressive, even by the world's intellectual standards. I guess I felt like it was being suggested that those of us who have chosen to be at home are wasting our potential, throwing it all away or hiding it under a bushel. It seemed like someone was telling you, "Now don't go making the same stupid choices your sisters did, you're too smart for that."

That being said, as far as you, Daria, are concerned, God has not given you the same thing to do that He's given some of us. You have a different opportunity, one that's just for you. I do not think you are a callous snob who hates the idea of housewifery and motherhood. I just think it's not what God has given you, at least not at this time. He may give you a family to care for or He may not. But for the time being, He hasn't. So maybe now is the time for YOU to explore the ways you can use the potential he's given you.

I really think I've created a tempest in a teapot by being too self-centered and insecure and overreacting (as I do). I'm sorry. I can't wait to talk with you about this in person...

amy said...

I am an underachiever because I dint want to work too hard and I'm afraid of failure.

I also want to say that I could never have gone to the moon.

Leila said...

What about me?? You should talk to ME in person!!

I don't think it's a tempest in a teapot or insecurity. I don't even think it's PMS. I do think it's a mid-life crisis!

Everyone, man or woman, reaches this stage where you see what your life has become -- it's no longer potential, it's what it is.

And no matter what, it's going to fall short of what we thought we could do.

That's the human condition.

I just think that we have to cling to the knowledge that God has a plan and we are course-correcting like mad, when we remember to.

Making a home takes brain-power if you are doing it right. And it's not over when the kids graduate! Look at how many young families are desperate for older families and older couples to be that calm, peaceful oasis of love and learning-- and there's nothing there!

And then the new generation has to figure it out from the beginning... just like we had to. What a waste.

Anyway, I wanted to say that the tone of my comment was meant to be warm and encouraging and not scolding, and not defensive.

The ladies who are committed to their homes are so few. I think you can do a million things and they will all be fantastic, but cling to the idea that your home, your marriage, and your children make a difference, and your role -- even as you get older -- is indispensable! That's the context for everything.

A big hug.

Pippajo said...

Amy, afraid of failure? Pffft, you kept pursuing your dream of being a mother against incredible odds, didn't you?

And Leila, I hope you know two things: 1) I would LOVE to talk to you in person! Are you coming to visit me like Daria is? Come on down!

2) The tone of your comment was received as intended. Let us all understand that none of us have offended the other, as we seem so afraid of doing.

And thanks to all three of you for commenting. I love when you chime in!