I cruised through I-81 trying to reach my mother as fast as I could. The fact that she chooses to live in the suburbs of Philadelphia is inconvenient but she’s a stubborn woman and nothing I would do or say will make her change her mind.
Some might think that I was anxious to see my mother. People who know me better know I had to log into my laptop and send a quick email to a prospective client.
For reference, I’m a real estate agent with a lucrative practice. I’m still amazed at how I got here. I was a high-profile attorney with a caseload envied by many others before I experienced a complete and utter burnout and quit my practice that I owned with four other partners.
I’m not a quitter so I remember my career still with a pang. I’m actually supremely ambitious and people who have seen me in court are slightly scared of my zest for my profession.
I had sensed the burnout coming on for years before I called it what it was. I tried a few things. I was a criminal lawyer and was spending a lot of time in the forensics lab and other places. I hadn’t trained as a criminal lawyer but the work was exciting and I had a natural knack for it. I practiced it for two years before I realized that it wasn’t for me. It was tough work with a side of danger that I didn’t need or want. I became a family lawyer and began dealing in high-stakes divorce cases. This was good and slow for five years and then I crashed here too. I thought I was just emotionally drained from watching families break. So I switched to copyright law. This was good for fifteen years and then became too monotonous. I had to finally look for an alternative career.
Like any professionally busy woman my dating life has been abysmal at best, tragic at worst. I have been engaged six times and broke up with my fiancées after a few months of each engagement. I’ve dated about twenty men. No one made the cut as my husband. I don’t regret any of it. If truth be told, I don’t have time for a marriage.
I reached my mom’s place. It was an idyllic neighborhood with white picket fences all around. Mentally guesstimating the prices on various houses I made it into my mom’s family room that she so lovingly calls her parlor.
My mom is French and has always lived a life of great luxury. She has never had a lot of money but she invested well and saved well. She has had the cheapest best-looking china and the best-tasting food on her table. My dad is French too. Unfortunately they’re divorced.
“You work too much”, she remarked as I dashed in the house, looking for a wall socket to charge my laptop while I texted my client frantically about when we could go to the open house of the next property.
I threw a wave at her and busied myself. God only knows how many niceties it takes for being a good child but I just drove two hours in traffic to be with her and if that’s not enough for her then I wasn’t killing myself.
She started silently setting the table, all the while listening to the radio and humming to the songs. I closed the deal over the phone, my client didn’t even want to go to the open house because she trusted me so much and I felt my mood getting better. I glanced at her and a wave of emotion engulfed me.
“Here”, I said, taking the baguette from her, “I’ll carry it”.
“Had a successful deal?” She asked casually.
“Yeah”, I said, “How did you know?”
“Your mood is always better after a deal goes well”.
I smiled and we sat down to eat.
My mom is a consummate French lady . She eats very slowly and takes her time. She enjoys everything. She spent a large part of her childhood visiting France with her grandparents and likes to live the quintessential French life. Slow, full and waltz-like.
“Sometimes your loneliness worries me”, she brought up an often talked topic between us.
“I’m not lonely”, I said between mouthfuls, “I have friends and clients. I meet more people than you everyday”.
“Mom”, I looked at her, “I tried getting married. It’s hard for me to get married to someone just because I have to”.
“I get it”, she said easily.
After dinner she made cappuccinos for both of us. She found me snoring on the sofa when she brought it over. She put a throw on me and went upstairs to her room.
Before she was up the next morning I had left to meet with some other realtors in my area and forge some connections. By the time I was done it was noon.
It was a Saturday and I had hoped for the meeting to go for much longer. But here I was in the middle of the day with nothing to do.
I’d never felt close enough with anyone to call them up on a weekend. It felt imposing. All my women friends were married with kids. All my men friends were also married. Weekends are for family, I’d been told by them over and over. I got the hint.
I resigned myself to a lonely weekend and an early workday on Monday. Unlike the rest of the world, I looked forward to Mondays.
It was a crisp autumn day. The next time I had a day where not much was happening was the summer of the following year.
I was at my mom’s place, sipping on my cappuccino wondering where the year went. I computed some numbers quickly and asked her to sit with me and watch all the magnificent houses that were slated to sell. She peered at the screen and finally said,
“It’s hard to imagine that this excites you”.
“For you”, I snorted, “You live a life of such leisure that just thinking about it bores my socks off”.
She smiled. Then,
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you. There’s a man I’m dating”.
I was quiet. I knew she was dating casually since the divorce so this must be a special one that deserved special mention.
“That’s great”, I said stiffly, avoiding eye contact.
“Are you dating someone?” She asked gently.
“You would’ve known, Mom”, I said, wondering if I should lie from now on about my lackluster love life.
She nodded sadly and didn’t speak for the rest of the evening. I left early.
The drive back was, as always, full of thoughts that could only enter if I wasn’t tethered to my Blackberry or my laptop. I thought of all the men, date nights rushed before my eyes, the breakups, the search for another partner.
I’m happier now, I told myself. I’m enjoying work. I’m only 40. I can look for someone in a year or two. I don’t want to leave my career at this point. I have to have some pivotal moment with real estate before I can distract myself.
The pivotal moment came sooner than I had counted on it.
I woke up one night with my heart beating out of my chest and my throat dry. I first thought I was sick and took my temperature. I didn’t have a fever. My anxiety kept getting worse and now I had crushing chest pain. I called 911.
Eight hours and a battery of tests later the doctor came in.
“Looks like you had a panic attack”.
“Have you had them before?”
“Do you suffer from anxiety?”
“I think you can go home. Your tests look okay and you feel better. Why don’t you see your family doctor in the morning?”
I didn’t see my family doctor. I knew what had happened. I had had various forms of it for years. I had a variant of it again. I was developing a similar pattern of burnout.
Dejected, I went back home. I had many deals that were due in that week but I couldn’t get out of bed for days. Because this was the first time I was self-employed, within a week my entire business collapsed, leaving me in a pit of darkness.
I’ve had jobs and work since then. I’ve had friends. I’ve even had significant others. I adopted a child and so now I’m a mother too except something is missing.
My child went into foster care as I couldn’t keep up with her appointments and meetings with teachers. Later my mother adopted her.
Life cruised along. I took up a job as a book keeper and found myself having lonely evenings and early mornings. I could barely sleep for eight hours and soon sleep at all became a luxury. I took many pills to sleep and was still sometimes awake the whole night.
I’m sitting in the tiny apartment that my mom recently bought close to my place because she is worried about me. I watch my daughter reading and I want to help her but don’t think I ever was trained to be with kids. I’m trying to swipe right but no man takes my fancy. My mom is cooking dinner for us. Like a consummate French, she does everything slowly and takes her time.
I wonder if I rushed through everything and didn’t let things pan out and deconstruct themselves before i uprooted myself and launched into something new. Something must be my fault too. It can’t all be the powers that be.
I don’t have a significant other and I don’t have a child. Two things that I had wanted to have at various stages of my life but put on hold due to work.
I don’t have a lot of money in the bank either. I had thought I’d be working forever and so hadn’t saved much. I started saving for the first time when I adopted.
I go through my friends’ Facebooks and some of them have had second and even third time marriages. I’ve had none. And I wanted to. I was engaged several times.
So much has been lost in the dust of time that it’s hard to find everything. I know I should be content with what is and not think about what could be.
But when you’ve had a history of being that professional who chased a career while planning a personal life and none of the personal goals ever materialize, you collect a lot of guilt. I could’ve avoided burnout if my life wasn’t singularly consumed by the race to have it all.
But wait! I never worked to have it all. If anything I worked to have a career and if it came with other stuff, well, that was awesome.
Many instances rushed in front of me. The pressure to prove myself as a professional woman. I didn’t date for many years because it reflected badly on my image as a driven women. Driven women don’t date or marry or have kids. They work.
The constant inquiry about my love life. To avoid embarrassment during dry spells in my dating life I would say things like I wasn’t looking. I strategically became available or unavailable based on how many men wanted to date me. Men can ask their friends to set them up. Women hesitate.
Also, it’s a turn off if settling down and having a relationship are dictated heavily by time and space.
Men that I was with soon became tired of playing second fiddle to my work. But I always played second fiddle to their work and never questioned it. I never compared work to myself because work is work. I wish they could’ve been the significant other that I was to them.
When I came down from criminal law to family law I was questioned about why I made the change. People suspected that I wasn’t ambitious enough or maybe I was starting a family. No one asked me what really happened. My mother was happy that I was finally leaving a man’s job, criminal law, to a man. Family law is what women should do, my mother said.
But when I further lessened my workload by adopting copyright litigation I was reminded by everyone that breaking back into family law would be so much harder. But I didn’t want to break back into family law. I wanted to do criminal law again but had zero work friends as there have traditionally been very few women there. I couldn’t share my experiences with many people who didn’t get it and it got lonely.
My burnout or the various forms of it didn’t occur because I worked demanding jobs. They occurred due to the loneliness that many women feel at work. Working women, whether single or married, have a life of loneliness because there are so few of us compared to the number of women who settle down and make a home. We are too single for the single girls who have temporary jobs until they’re settled with a better prospect or find someone that they can set up a family with and adopt the role of a homemaker. We are too single again for the married women whose husbands we work with. It’s a conundrum.
And so we continue to use our work as our fuel and sustenance. We continue to face a type of burn out that has roots in moral injury. We continue to sit indoors on lonely days and long nights waiting for the next best job to save us.