Temporary setbacks

I once heard of a professor who frames his letters of rejection from academic journals, and hangs them on the wall of his office so that his PhD students and colleagues can see them. And apparently he has lots of them. The reason he does this is that he wants his students to see that although he is a successful and experienced academic, he still gets a lot of letters of rejection, and he doesn’t allow them to deter him from what he wants, and that is to keeping building his career and keep working as an academic.

Last week I received a negative response from a foundation that I had applied for funding from. This was funding I really wanted. It was for three-year postdoctoral research, and I submitted my application in September last year. Yes, it took seven months to find out I didn’t get the funding.

Now, this funding is very prestigious and hard to get, there is only about a 10% chance of getting it, so I knew that the odds were against me. But I still wanted it very much and I’m disappointed of course.

What do you do when things don’t go the way you hoped? That is, other than frame the letter of rejection and hang it on your wall? This was only my first application for this particular project – I still hope to get funding for my post-doc research project elsewhere – but it sort of woke me up to the fact that the next one may also fall through, and the one after that. So I had a mini existential crisis over the weekend, which I spent thinking about whether this way of life that I chose to opt in to, is really any way to live? I mean, no matter how inspirational that professor with his walls covered with letters of rejection is, being an academic and being faced with rejection so often really doesn’t seem like a lot of fun.

However, no matter how hard I think about it, I still can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than what I’m doing now. Well, for the time being at least, we all know that life changes, and situations, wants, and needs change. But I did realize one thing. I realized how quickly you get sucked in by the rules and structures of whatever world it is in which you live and work, despite being hell-bent on living and working on your own terms, terms that work for you and that reflect what it is that is important to you.

So what you do when hit with rejection and disappointing news is that you pause, think, and then you get up and you get on with your life and carry on with whatever it is you are doing.

I realized that I don’t need to wait around for someone to give me permission to start this post-doc research project. I can start now, small scale, and then expand my research project when I do have funding for it. Ironically, the main criticism I got from this foundation that doesn’t want to fund me, was that since men opting out is virtually a non-explored phenomenon, they aren’t convinced that it really is a phenomenon. In other words, since no one has researched it, they don’t feel convinced that there is anything to research. I obviously wasn’t clear enough in my research proposal, because although men haven’t been a part of the opting out debate, it does not mean that there is not ample research to argue that opting out indeed is a phenomenon that can also encompass men.

So that is what I’m going to do. I’m going to start small scale now, and gather some evidence, which will make future research proposals even stronger. And then I will be able to expand my study once I do have the funding.

So if you are a man who has opted out, or know of a man who has opted out who may be willing to be interviewed, please email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com

Remember, I define opting out as leaving mainstream career models and expected ways of working in order to live and/or work on one’s own terms. This can be anything from quitting work altogether to doing the same kind of job but with a different mindset.

Or if you just want to share your opting out story or experiences with me, whether a man or a woman, I would love to hear from you.

All emails are of course confidential and will be treated as such.

So here I go, embarking on the exciting project of studying men and opting out, and exploring how that is similar to or different from women’s experiences. This is something I have been planning to do since I started working on my PhD in 2009, and I simply can’t wait to get started!

Guilt, care, and time with loved ones

I was in Glasgow last week at the BSA (British Sociological Association) conference and as a result my head is spinning with plans and ideas for my research. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of interesting people and have had some really good conversations. But as I sit here and reflect over the conference there is one thing that sticks out in my mind, and that is the word ‘guilt’.

It’s not that I or anyone else was feeling especially guilty at the time, although who knows, that is at least not what we were talking about. No, it came up as a recurring theme when talking about women, work, careers, and mothering.

Now I admit that I have a somewhat unhealthy guilt complex. I sometimes joke that if there is anything that I could possibly feel guilty about, I do, and if there is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about, I do anyway. I know this is completely irrational and I have gotten better at not feeling so guilty all the time.

One thing that seems to connect women, whether or not they have a career, whether or not they have children, is that they, or rather we, feel way too guilty about too many things. I know I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will so that you know you’re not alone. Here are a few things that you possibly and probably often feel guilty about:

Not being with your kids enough; not being at work enough; not spending enough time with parents/friends/family/loved ones; not getting enough done; not being a good enough mother/daughter/wife/friend; not being attentive enough to others’ needs; not being ambitious enough; not exercising enough; not giving the kids food that is nutritious enough; not monitoring their screen time enough; and not getting enough done although we’re doing all of the above to the best of our ability (yes, really, to the best of our ability, stop beating yourself up) and feeling guilty about it too, which also takes a lot of energy.

I could go on, but there really is no point. The point I wanted to make when listing all these things, is that if you recognize any of these you will know that you are not alone, because unfortunately, this is something I have found in my research: women tend to think it’s just them. That every one else is doing fine, and many women ask themselves, why can’t I handle it when everyone else seems to be able to? The thing is, we’re just really great at keeping it together and putting on a brave face.

So why is this, you ask, why do we feel so guilty? Well, it’s complicated, but the main reasons are cultural and structural. With cultural I mean the way women are brought up and the gendered ideals prevalent in society. And with structural I mean the way we organize society, they way we define work, and the way we continue to put most of the care responsibilities on women. These two are very closely linked.

While women are taught to have it all – a family, a career, and to participate in public debate and policy making – we are also making it difficult for women to do this because of the contradictory messages we send them about femininity and what it means to be a good worker, citizen, woman, and mother. Simply put, women get extremely mixed and contradictory messages regarding what it is that they need to live up to.

Despite gender equality initiatives, which include encouraging men to take paternity leave and participate more in childcare, the change has been and is extremely slow, and women continue to be mainly responsible for care in society. Childcare is also actually only a small part of all the care done in society. Although we mostly think and talk about stressed and sleep deprived mothers of small children when we talk about care, we have other care responsibilities too. Not only are women mainly responsible for childcare, they are also mainly responsible for other care, like caring for elderly parents, spouses, or other ailing relatives and friends. And even though care is often outsourced, someone still needs to manage and coordinate it, and either way it can be draining and emotionally very difficult. Talking to a good friend and colleague at the conference, it really started to dawn on me how much women organize their lives and their work around care. This is also true for the women who opt out. A big part of their narratives, whether or not they have children, is about the people in their lives and the relationships they want to nurture, which the career they opted out of left very little room for. It may seem obvious, that we want to and should be there for the people who are important to us and need us, but this is just not the way work is organized. Very little room is left for care, which is one of the main reasons we tend to feel overwhelmed.

Now I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t care for loved ones, but we can be aware of how unequal the distribution of care in society is and work on that. And we can think about that maybe we need a society and a working culture that accommodates and makes more room for care and relationships, for both men and women. Either way, women have some pretty unrealistic expectations to live up to, and we need to realize this and we really need to not feel so guilty all the time. It is such a waste of energy.

The five main myths of opting out

Myth #1: Only women with small children opt out

There are a lot of misconceptions of what opting out is, the main one being that it is only women with small children who opt out. However, research has shown that women who opt out, don’t necessarily do it when their kids are small. Most plan to continue working after having children. Having small children is hard; mothers with young children are often tired and slightly overwhelmed by sleep deprivation and crazy schedules, getting kids to daycare with the right gear, picking them up on time or on short notice when they’re sick, and nursing them back to health while also working at the same time, birthday parties, activities, gifts for teachers… I could go on. However, women with very young children often stick it out, grit their teeth, and just do it – often in a haze – but they do. It isn’t until their kids are a bit bigger that many actually have a moment to consider that maybe this just isn’t the way they want to live their lives. And often that is when they start to reconsider. Not necessarily when their kids are very little, although that obviously happens too.

I’ve met women who opted out when their children were grown. And some women I know who’ve opted out, don’t have children at all. Opting out isn’t only about women with young children; it isn’t only about women with children. I’ve interviewed women both with and without children, and their experiences, their reasons for leaving, their hopes and dreams, were all remarkably similar. Mothers often use their children as a reason for leaving. After all, it’s easier to say that you want to spend more time with your kids than to say things like ‘this working culture just isn’t working for me’ or ‘I’m being discriminated and I just don’t have the energy to take the fight’ or ‘you are not very nice to work with’. If you say you want to be with your children, people are generally not going to argue with that. Also, women are usually applauded for wanting to be there more for their kids. And the reality is, that these women are often so exhausted by the time they do leave, that they tend to choose the road that minimizes confrontation.

Myth #2: Women opt out to become stay-at-home moms

Most of the research done on opting out – and this also goes for the debate in the media – has been on women who leave their high-powered careers to be stay-at-home moms. In reality, however, there is absolutely no statistical evidence that shows that women are opting out in any great numbers to become stay-at-home moms. On the contrary, research has shown that the women who want to spend more time raising their children, generally also want to do something else, something outside the home that doesn’t involve their children. Like work; work that they can better combine with being a mother. Besides, like I stated above, opting out doesn’t have to involve children at all. Not all women who opt out even have children.

No, opting out is about opting in to a different mindset, alternative lifestyles, and working and/or living on one’s own terms. It can be anything really: downshifting, retraining and finding a completely new type of job, or staying at the same company but with a completely new mindset. It can also mean staying home full time, but it certainly doesn’t have to.

Myth #3: Only women with rich husbands who can support them opt out

Among my interviewees I have had single women without children, single moms, and women who did have a husband but who were the main breadwinners in their families. I have also interviewed women with husbands who could have supported them, but despite that, these women continued to generate their own income anyway after having opted out. Opting out does not have to entail giving up an income. It is rather about finding a way to have an income but on one’s own terms. Yes, the income was often smaller than it had been because a high-powered career is after all a high-powered career, and in that case they adjusted their lifestyles accordingly.

Myth #4: Women who opt out aren’t ambitious or don’t have what it takes

This is just completely wrong. The women I interviewed were all highly ambitious. They never even planned to opt out. They just realized they didn’t want to go on the way they had. Often they re-evaluated what was important to them, and some realized that they just didn’t share the values of the companies they worked for anymore. All of them had plans and dreams and wanted to continue working. And the ones that did opt out to stay home with their kids, knew from the start that it was only going to be temporary, that they would eventually start working again, but on their own terms.

Myth #5: Opting out is a women’s issue

I started out studying women because when working on a PhD you have to limit your study, otherwise you’ll end up writing an encyclopedia and not a PhD and you will never finish. I chose to study women, and quickly realized I had to also limit it to women with children, because I wanted to add to the current debate on opting out and offer an alternative view. But opting out is not only about women. It isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a societal and a contemporary issue. People – both men and women – are, for different reasons, increasingly looking to define the parameters of their lives themselves, and create ways of working that specifically meet their individual wants and needs. They don’t want to work in a specific way just because that is what’s expected of them, or because that is the way it has been done for as long as anyone can remember.

In fact, my plan is to study men next – that is men who opt out. Although different than the norms women deal with, men are also expected to live up to certain social standards. However, these social norms and traditions don’t necessarily reflect the multitude of ways that men want to live their lives. And like for women, mainstream career models don’t necessarily reflect the way many men want to work.

So, this is what I plan to do. No, I take that back, this is what I will do. Just like when I opted out in order to opt in to working on my PhD, I know that it is something I have to do. It’s important research and I feel passionate about it. If none of my funding applications come through, I’ll just have to figure out some other way to organize it.

Life is messy

I’m working on a paper at the moment, about what a complex phenomenon opting out really is. You’ll often see stories in the media of people who have opted out of their careers to do something completely different: move to the country and raise chickens, sell their house to buy a sailboat and sail the world, open a hotel spa in Thailand, or a café just down the street. These people all seem so happy and it all seems so easy. But opting out is anything but easy.

Those who opt out, generally go through a relatively major crisis that pushes them to take the step. So that which in the colorful pictures of smiling people in magazines looks like an easy, obvious, and sometimes quick decision, really is the result of major feelings of doubt and insecurity, as well as careful deliberation and planning, before daring to take the step and adopt a new lifestyle. And to be completely honest, daring is the wrong word to use here because the people who opt out, rarely feel that they were brave and that they dared to do anything. After having gone through what they did, opting out and in seemed like the only option and was simply something they just had to do.

But even then, even after having taken the step, even though they know that this was what they had to do, they continue to feel uncertain, and they continue to have identity crises as they struggle to come to terms with their new selves and lifestyles. This is because when you have dedicated years to working in a certain way, it becomes such a great part of your identity that leaving often causes an identity crisis.

Now, you may be thinking, she really is painting a painful picture of opting out. But after having finally found and adopted their new lifestyles, the people who opt out and in feel authentic, fulfilled and, yes, happy. Even so, they continue to have moments of doubt, moments when they struggle with their choices.

It is precisely because the opting out phenomenon is so multi-faceted and multi-layered that I never seem to tire of studying it. Opting out is good and it is bad – although mostly good, judging from how the people I’ve interviewed feel about how things turned out. And this complexity reflects life in general. Nothing is all good or all bad. No one is always happy, confident, and successful. No one is supposed to be. That would just be boring.

On bad days – days when I feel like a fraud, thinking any second now people will notice I have no idea what I’m doing – I look at other people; people in the media, for example, who are so successful and seem to have purposefully made it to where they are, knowing exactly what they were doing every step of the way. However, although this may dazzle me for a second, I know that their journeys weren’t any more painless or any less filled with doubt and insecurity that anyone else’s. Experience has taught me that in reality things very seldom go as planned. Unexpected opportunities come up, or plans fall through, making us choose alternative paths, and afterwards we add causality and coherence to our stories, giving meaning to actions, choices, and events in retrospect. Having a coherent life narrative is, after all, important.

But although we try to act otherwise, in reality life is messy. So if you’re worried that you’re the only one who feels lost, or who doesn’t have it all figured out, don’t. No one does. We all just make it up as we go along.

Help that just isn’t helpful

I’m not a big shopper, except when it comes to books, and when I travel I really like browsing through local bookstores. I’ll often buy a book, and this might seem strange, but I remember where I bought which book and what the bookstore was like. Like my used copy of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (I loved that) that I bought in a tiny store with a wonderful ambience in Greenwich Village in New York. This was right after enjoying some divine cupcakes at The Magnolia Bakery. Or Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter (I haven’t read that yet) that I bought in the combined coffee/bookshop on campus at the University of Keele. Needless to say, the shop smelled wonderful. A couple of months ago I was in Stockholm and bought a copy of Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation by Dr Stephen Briers, which I’m reading at the moment and really enjoying. (This visit unfortunately included neither coffee nor cupcakes.)

I was interested in this book because through my research I have spent a lot of time contemplating what exactly it is about contemporary society that tends to make people feel overwhelmed. Because that is what many people seem to be – overwhelmed. There is something about life today that seems to make people feel generally less secure than they did in previous times. It is not necessarily more dangerous today than before, and if I’m not mistaken, research has in fact shown that it isn’t, but people are more aware of the risks, partly due to the incredibly fast and efficient global sharing of news and information (and disasters) through media and technology. Then there is of course the insecurity of working in financially precarious times, but there is something else as well.

It’s as if with the makeover culture, the TV shows dedicated to self-improvement (some of which is quite extreme), and all the advice that is not only available to us but that we are constantly bombarded with on how to get better at various things, we are being told that there is still so much room for (needed) improvement. The message we’re getting is that we just aren’t good enough the way we are. If we just lost a bit of weight, managed to give up sugar altogether (which I admit is something I’m seriously contemplating but don’t think I’ll ever manage to do, and this is making me feel slightly guilty), became stronger, fitter, more positive, more patient, and more assertive, we would be happy because we would have finally reached our full potential. Not to mention all the instructions on how to dress, behave, network, and organize ourselves at work in order to have that rocket career. But that’s the thing. With all the help and encouragement out there on how to change our lives and live to our full potential, we are also being told that we really have a long way to go. As we are being fed unrealistic expectations, this full potential becomes something that continues to be just out of reach, or rather light years away, in other words simply unachievable.

Have you been to the self-help section in your local bookstore lately? If you have, you will have noticed that it is packed, with self-help books that is. Researchers often use the term ‘therapy culture’ to describe the reality in which we live. But as Christopher Lasch, author of a book called The Culture of Narcissism puts it, this therapy culture promotes a type of cultural hypochondria. Crisis becomes personal and permanent and people dig deeper and deeper to find their core authentic self in order to deal with the ambiguity and ambivalence of contemporary life.

The reason I like the book I’m reading right now so much, is that Briers goes through the main self-help myths, debunking them one at a time. With every chapter that I read, I feel increasingly relieved to be getting confirmation that I can ignore these social pressures to change my behavior while trying to achieve unrealistic and impossible goals. Although all self-help isn’t bad – there are good and insightful books out there – Briers still maintains that on a whole, self-help hasn’t helped. We’re not any better than before, we’re just unhappier with ourselves.

The people who really need help, don’t need self-help, they need professional help, and I sincerely hope they have access to what they need. For the rest of us, instead of asking ourselves why self-help doesn’t help, we should consider that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need help. Maybe we’re fine the way we are, all different, imperfect, and quirky in our own way. Maybe we just need to accept that and get on with it. Life, that is.