Growing up, I often heard about and saw depicted in books and movies the whole idea of the “importance of work to a man.” Men who could not work, who could not support their wives and families were frequently depicted as victims. They drank. They were abusive, but it was okay, or at least understandable, because they world had dealt them a bad hand. They were to be sympathized with and pitied. To be honest, I always wrote off this line of thinking, this story line as patronizing bullshit, especially when a woman or other family member was able to provide for a family. Why did it matter who brought in the money as long as there was food on the table?
Then along came a day when I decided I hated my job, and I had no desire to renew my one-year contract. At first it wasn’t too bad. But then, I finished out the semester, and I still didn’t have a new job. This was worse, but not horrible as while I had finished up my work, I still had a couple months on my contract, which meant I was still getting paid. The ending to that contract was creeping nearer and nearer to its end though, and I was starting to loose hope.
I had always thought that not working would actually be kind of nice. You have all that free time! You can engage in all kinds of hobbies and learning activities! Imagine all the knitting, drawing, and painting I could do? I could cuddle my cats all day! I could go for walks outside whenever I wanted. I could learn some new skills like sewing and work on my cooking and baking. Reality set in pretty quickly. I became depressed. What use was I to society? I was contributing nothing. I was completely useless. I could disappear tomorrow and society would loose nothing. I lost the desire to engage in any of my hobbies, so I watched TV and felt sorry for myself. I was worthless! What if I never got a job! Nobody seemed to want me anyway. (Note: I have a bad tendency to wallow in self-pity and be dramatic).
At some point during this downward spiral I began to think: Since my life has no purpose, what can I do that would give it one? And the answer that came into my head was actually quite a horrifying one: I could have kids. If I had kids, even if I didn’t have a job, I would be contributing to something. I would have a goal, something to work towards. I could spend my days getting prepared. Focus on them when they came along.
This then led me to a different question: how many women throughout history have had kids because they thought it would give them a purpose? That it would give them something to do? That it would end their boredom? Make them feel needed and wanted and useful to society? This was an idea that I had never really thought about, and horrified me on a number of levels. For one thing: what a horrible reason to bring a child into the world. Yes, there are worse reasons, but it is, nonetheless, an incredibly selfish one as you are doing it purely for yourself.
I suspect part of this line of thought came from the fact that I am getting to that age in which people typically begin to “settle down.” Heck, in some parts of the country, I’m actually on my way to passing that age. Most of my graduating high school class already has kids, a fact I only realized because I am coming up on my ten-year reunion (I suspect that the prospect of showing up to my high school reunion without a current job was not helping my depression levels).
Not too long ago, I did get offered a job. It sounded wonderful and cool, but I decided not to take it for a number of financial and life-style reasons. And I have finally gotten myself to accept that taking this time to better myself is a worthy purpose. I am working on my knitting at the moment (I am making some gifts for my niece and nephew), and I am looking into making myself a quilt for my bed. They are small little goals, but still something to work towards. In addition, I have also started volunteering at an end-of-life home. My family thinks I am a little crazy for doing this, but I think it will be good for me. For one thing, it is a little hard to feel sorry for yourself when you are helping someone who is literally entering the final stage of his or her life.
I have learned a lot from this experience. For one thing, I have learned just how important it is to make sure you do have a purpose in your life, and how hard it can be when you do not have one. How dispiriting it is to not be able to support yourself, and how much of a blow to your pride it can be. Finally, I have learned that just because something will give you a “purpose,” does not mean you should do it.
Danielle Lutfi-Proctor is a cognitive psychologist, lover of writing, and amateur photographer. Born in Jordan, she spent her childhood in Australia, and moved to New Orleans for middle and high school. An avid reader and traveler, she has been published in academic journals and has taught courses at Wake Forest University and Louisiana State University. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband and two cats.