I’ve read a few things lately about going through life without ever realising your full potential. Perhaps instead of your humdrum job you were supposed to be writing books by now, or running your own business.
But life unfolded, and it turned out that you’re just averagely ambitious. You looked the other way for a bit, and things like career progression and job status slowly receded over the horizon.
You had those distractions in your personal life that stalled you because you weren’t sure which way your life was heading. Now you’re waiting for that day when the head-fog disperses and you’re suddenly electrified with clear resolve, determined to get yourself back on track.
Except it never happens, and one year in this job becomes three, then six, then ten. Where does the inertia come from, the immobility?
As a person without kids, I feel I have no good explanation. I’ve lost my way, fallen into the wrong niche. I arsed around in different countries, a bit fatalistic, in the years after my mother died. I didn’t have any seize the day moments after her messy death. So I was grateful in my mid-30s to be offered a regular wage for a serious office job. I was always catastrophically under-confident, never presumptuous enough to have criteria of my own when I went for an interview.
I knew nothing of public sector offices, where dreams go to die: the weird oppressiveness, the day-prison atmosphere and the soul-sapping energy. You stay because the pay is good, there’s no real stress, there are recessions going on, and you are now pigeon-holed. Anyway, all office jobs have started to look the same to you. Why move on? So you’re rumbling along in the sidings, waiting to join the main track again – but the driver is a bit listless. Unconscious even.
And then it happens: 40 is so close you can taste it. You don’t seem to have achieved much on the professional or familial fronts. Let the 3 a.m cold sweats commence.
In the eye of the storm, when I looked to my available childfree role models for comfort, it was a case of hiding any sharp objects or bootlaces in the vicinity. For they included in their number: millionaire superwoman Oprah Winfrey, Hollywood A-list actor Cameron Diaz, Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Ellen. Missy Elliot. The Brontës. The first female editor-in-chief at the Guardian. Janet Jackson, Winona Ryder, Gina McGee, Maxine Peake.
You are fucking kidding me. I felt ten times worse: these women made me feel doubly depressed that I hadn’t achieved anything noteworthy AND I hadn’t even managed to drop a baby. Or write anything longer than a postcard, or be born good-looking. These lists are the worst thing to look at when you’re having your dark night of the soul. You need real-life role models: women down the street, in your office, your family.
Who tell you, with gusto, and you believe them, that their lives are alright and yours will be too.
But I think I’m finally starting to understand that parents with unfulfilled potential don’t necessarily feel any different than I do about it, just because they were busy raising children on the side. They haven’t attained some blissful higher level of consciousness in their crap jobs, content in the knowledge that they really couldn’t have done any better in the circumstances. The thought of their kids might not be some kind of magic elixir that makes the day bearable. We might be the same where this is concerned, at least for 7.5 hours of the day. And parents in very cool-seeming jobs, like Miranda Sawyer who has written this about midlife angst, have similar crises of head and heart.
So where does all this leave the person who is crap-of-job AND missing out on the Instagram moments at home that seem to make it all worthwhile?
Midlife crises to do with unfulfilled career potential probably feel much the same to all of us. People with brilliant jobs also burn out; they hanker for change, peace, to carve wood all day or live off the land with just their veg patch and view of the sea. Surely the feeling is the same in substance for everyone. I don’t think having offspring or daydreaming about grandchildren makes disillusioned mid-lifers feel any cheerier about the professional rut they suddenly find themselves in.
Does it help someone like me, though? Do the photos on the desk help get you through the endless drear of work days?
I don’t know.
Going back to childfree role models, right now they are much more likely to be ordinary but extraordinary women like Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos, Jody Day or Lisa Manterfield, who weren’t embarrassed to speak out about feeling marginalised by our baby-mad society. Who had the guts to stop trying. Or someone I know, who, at 43, does a genuine, fully committed shudder when I ask her if she would have liked kids and her eyes say fuck no.
I do have a soft spot for Jennifer Aniston, though. Maybe she’s earned a place on my desk. I’m convinced she’s not very maternal, or she would have somehow procured a kid by now.
Hold out, Jen, hold out.
Don’t let us down, don’t be predictable.