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A librarian, writer and educator reflecting on the profession and the tools we use to serve our patrons
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Wayfinding and balance at mid-career

February 20, 2018 - 1:08pm

It’s LIS Mental Health Week; a week focused on raising awareness of mental health. This post isn’t about mental health per se, but something that I think, for me, is very much exacerbated by anxiety and the constant negative self-appraisal that comes with it.

Two blog posts really resonated with me recently. Sarah Houghton (who I believe is exactly the same age as I am or pretty darn close) wrote about being mid-career and at a personal and professional crossroads without any clear sense of direction but knowing that forward is the only way to go. Veronica Arellano Douglas wrote about her feelings that she’s never quite doing enough professionally and how academia encourages this feeling through reifying busy-ness and overwork. I’ve been in a weird place for close to a year now and I’m not really sure yet how to push my way though it. It’s not terrible or anything. I’m not depressed. I really like my job. I love my colleagues and the students and faculty I get to work with. But I feel rudderless. I feel unsure about what my purpose is in this profession anymore and what I really should be focusing on. It’s not as if I’m not still working hard and committed to my job, but I don’t have the passionate sense of mission I used to with everything I did.

How do you develop a sense of purpose and direction that guides everything you do? I pretty much just fell into the things I was passionate about for the first decade of my career. My early-career experience was so bizarre because of this blog and the reputation I developed. I started my blog and people started to believe that I knew things even though I was just figuring everything out as I went along. I created a wiki and suddenly I was an authority on wikis. I pursued things like Five Weeks to a Social Library because I was passionate about affordable online learning for library professionals. I fell into every success I had. I did all of my learning and made all of my mistakes in public, some of which are painful to look back on now. So many people asked me for advice as if I had some kind of expertise when I was still just learning how to be a professional. I’m not complaining. It was exciting, weird, wonderful, gratifying, and also really hard for someone who deals with anxiety. I never felt like I deserved any of the awards or opportunities I received back then and I had a lot of guilt, though I worked so hard and spent nearly all of my time (pre-baby) focused on our profession. It never felt like enough. I look back and I wish I had enjoyed it all more because, in hindsight, I see how hard I worked for it.

Now that I’m 40 (gasp!), I’ve been devouring fiction and non-fiction (memoir, not self-help) about women at mid-life and how they reconcile the person they are, the person they were, and the person they want to be. So many books about women and personal growth at midlife are like Eat, Pray, Love where a woman chucks her old life and goes on a journey and is all the better for it. But I like to think about what that journey, that reckoning could look like if she stays in her life, as most of us do. Can you only have epiphanies while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, doing yoga in India, or kayaking remote waters alone? That isn’t a realistic option for most of us. I love reading about women’s messy midlife crises like Chris Kraus’ in I Love Dick, but it frustrates me that most of them are about men and sex. In my personal life, I know that I am exactly where I want to be. Professionally though? I almost feel like I need to do whatever the professional version of buying a sports car is, because I feel so rudderless. I want to metaphorically set fire to everything because I have no idea where to go from here.

I thought, for a long time, that the brass ring to reach for was becoming a Director. I thought so highly of my first library director and I moved in that “evidence of increasingly responsible experience” direction. As a middle manager, I loved supporting my direct reports and leading projects, but I hated that between a rock and a hard place experience many middle managers have, especially in toxic workplaces. After spending one year barely working the reference desk, I realized that I never really wanted to give up the “meat-and-potatoes” work of librarianship. I love teaching and working directly with students and faculty. There are aspects of being a director that interest me, but the schmoozing, budgeting, and spending my life in meetings aspects more than outweigh any positives for me.

Tenure and, in my current job, continuous appointment were things to work toward and “proving myself a valuable member of the team” was a solid sense of direction for the first three years of my current job. This Spring, I received notice that I’d be getting continuous appointment at work. After the drama of working towards tenure at my last job, it felt great to know I was finally “safe.” It was the first time I’ve felt I could relax in so many years. But I also experienced something of a letdown because I had been driving towards something for so long and working so hard and now what? I’ve felt this year a bit empty at work. I’m still really productive and passionate about my day-to-day teaching, but I feel rudderless. I’m not unhappy, really, just… I don’t know.

After having my son, I had to wrestle with my new identity as a mother and what that meant for me professionally, all the while dealing with epic postpartum depression. Even once the depression lifted, as the child of a stay-at-home mom, I spent a long time feeling like I wasn’t devoting enough time to parenting and feeling tremendous guilt. I remember trying to volunteer at my son’s school when he was in Kindergarten and make it work with my full-time job and feeling like I was burning the candle at both ends. It became abundantly clear to me that my son didn’t give a shit whether I was there to help his class make Jackson Pollock-esque paintings or plant seeds in the school garden or not and that no one was judging me for not being there (at least no one I cared about) other than myself. I still feel guilty every time a school volunteer opportunity comes across my email even though I know I shouldn’t feel that way. I’ve gotten really good at leaving my work at work and engaging with my family at home. But the funniest thing is that the better work-life balance I achieve, the less positively I’ve felt about myself. It’s like, even though I’m doing what I should be doing, I feel like I’m failing to do enough in both realms of my life.

I spent the first decade of my career so focused and passionate and now I just don’t have a clue what’s next. What do I want to deeply engage with? What am I most passionate about? Where should I focus my efforts at work to have the most impact? What can I do to make our profession better? What can I do to be a better person/wife/mother/citizen/librarian? I know my history of depression and anxiety with its obsessive focus on self isn’t helping me here and I honestly feel embarrassed to feel this way; first world problems, right? But I’ve read enough about the “female midlife crisis” to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

For those of you in similar straits, how are you coping with this “what’s next?” feeling? For people who’ve already navigated these waters, what did you do to get past it? How do you reignite that passionate spark for your work? Veronica wrote about how the idealization of overwork in academia leads to guilt and “leaves folks ripe for exploitation.” I wonder if it also leads “reformed” overworkers to this sense of rudderlessness when they try to let go of it. What do you think?

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