[[Today, as we return to the Running Through It series, Sarah, a Massachusetts-based #motherrunner, talks about abandoning her original career dreams—and how running has brought clarity to her situation.]]
Letting go of my first career: that’s what I’m running through right now.
Until June 30th, 2018, I had a title: College Fellow in Italian. I taught college and graduate courses in Italian literature; I wrote; I went to conferences; and, because every position at my level is a limited appointment, I applied for jobs constantly. When I got my Ph.D. in 2015, I assumed I would spend a couple of years doing this, but I had no idea how much it would eventually wear me down.
Sometime this past winter, I began to fantasize with growing seriousness about making the conscious decision to end the agonizing process of putting myself out there —and being rejected—over and over.
That decision took the form of buying our first house this summer. My husband has been quietly scrolling through Zillow for years, hoping that my career would take us somewhere where we could finally settle down. University of Alabama is hiring? Look at these gorgeous homes in Tuscaloosa! Whenever I applied for a job, he scouted listings, and we told ourselves that as long as we could be flexible, that tenure-track position would eventually come.
Sometime this past winter, I felt ready to say how tired I was of being flexible. I started participating in the Zillow fantasizing, and soon the prospect of roots, stability, and staying in one place longer than two years fired me up more than any job posting I had seen in months. In June, we closed on our beautiful condo.
It's on a quiet street in an awesome neighborhood with kids my daughter’s age next door who invite her to swing on their swing set whenever we walk by. We have a lawn to mow and way too much cilantro growing on the porch. This sweet, comfortable new home also means the end of applying for jobs nationwide, the end of being ready to move at the drop of a hat. And that's ok. It is time to be done, to give myself to other areas of my life, and to find new work that makes me feel valued again. The indefinite uncertainty of the academic life is no longer right for me, regardless of how successful I may or may not have had the potential to be.
In retrospect, though, I can see that I wasn’t ready to leave academia until I could believe I was worth something more than the lines on my CV. I had to cultivate that belief within myself.
Love from the outside has always been in abundant supply, thanks to my wonderful family and friends. But love from the inside? That’s harder for me to come by. It has, thankfully, grown out of running.
I started running in 2005, around the same time I enrolled in Beginning Italian. I had no prior history with either, but college turned out to be a time of discovering new things and falling in love with them. My husband came along in 2005, too: a tall bass-player dude with long hair who seemed like the least likely person for me to date. We worked, though, in part because I had so much in my life to sustain me. My Italian professors treated my running as a reliable constant, composing sample sentences in class such as “Sarah ran this morning, Sarah will run tomorrow morning – right, Sarah?”
I was always running, in all tenses. As I ran, I would find myself almost absentmindedly translating song lyrics into Italian, only realizing it when I got stuck on a difficult verse that just wouldn’t resolve itself.
Falling in love with Italian and running (and the boyfriend, for that matter) brought a quiet worry that I might somehow lose them, through laziness or inertia or some other character deficiency. Yet, every day I woke up and there they were.
When I went to Ferrara, Italy, for a semester of my junior year, I began training for the Florence marathon. In 18 weeks of training, I did not skip a single run. Marathon day (November 26th, 2006) was one of the best days of my life, and I remember telling myself as it unfolded to hold onto every moment for as long as possible.
From somewhere before the halfway point all the way to the finish line, I ran alongside two U.S. army guys stationed in Italy, the first Americans I had been around in months. We quoted favorite TV shows and thrived on the warm familiarity we found together. After mile 20, things got pretty quiet, and then around mile 23, one of my new friends admitted that if it hadn’t been for me, he would have stopped to walk long before that point. I don’t remember their names, we didn’t take a photo together (who would run a marathon with a camera?), and after a finish-line high-five, we parted ways.
Since that day, I have run and run and run in search of all the feelings the Florence Marathon gave me. I was tough, I did know how to work hard. Most importantly, my tenacity and my belief in myself had actually helped another person believe in himself and keep going. Feeling these feelings alongside other people is what I love about running, and though I have lost sight of it a few times over the years, the struggles of my professional life have made it abundantly clear how much I need it.
When I started running, I didn’t even dare to hope that I would still be doing it 10 years later, but there I was in January of 2015 running a half marathon in South Florida, where I had continued running despite living in the climate of my nightmares. (Floridians who run, I eternally salute you.)
Then, two weeks later, I learned I was pregnant. Over the following nine months, I finished my doctoral dissertation in Italian literature; graduated with my Ph.D.; taught summer study abroad in Italy for two months; gave birth to a baby girl; and began applying for academic jobs everywhere in the country. As parenthood consumed my body and my brain, I covered it up for the job market. I wrote cover letters, created course syllabi from scratch, presented at conferences, conducted interviews over Skype, and got my first several rejections.
I hadn’t been able to run for most of my pregnancy, but by November of 2015 it was time to climb out of the hole of worthlessness I was in: Despite my exhaustion, I struggled into a two-sports-bra-getup and went out to jog through the steamy Florida heat for just a little while, a couple of mornings a week. Around the same time, a dear friend recommended a podcast called Another Mother Runner, and in Dimity and Sarah’s conversations I heard strains of the life that I wanted back.
At the time, I thought I was running for postpartum weight loss and regaining fitness; what I see now is how badly I needed to believe in myself again.
As running slowly came back to me, I began to understand how little my profession was contributing to my self-worth. I was accepted for a postdoctoral fellowship in Boston, and I got to do all the things I love: teaching, advising, seeing students come into themselves in ways that reflected my own intellectual discoveries in college. With a firm two-year cap on that position, though, I was still on the job market 100% of the time.
Each new application drew my eye right to my deficiencies: publications lacking, too much language teaching, not enough prestigious fellowships. In truth, I had existed this way for years, with the positive, affirming environment of my classroom dissolving as soon as I got back to my office and started working on cover letters again.
The time I spent with my students loving my job was nowhere near equivalent to the time I spent feeling depleted and not good enough. I tried everything I could to reframe my thinking and believe in myself. Bottom line? Do better. Always: Do better.
Had I achieved success earlier in the form of a long-term job, I think I would still be facing this lack of equilibrium. This realization pushed me to declare that it was time to be done.
I am still coming to terms with the end of that cycle. Some days, I feel light, free, open, excited for the first time in years about the uncertainty ahead. Other days, I feel failed, rejected, weak, and like a disappointment to so many people. I love Italian as much as I ever have, and I have always loved connecting with others over literature – why couldn’t I make it work? I could have stuck it out for one more year, revised my book again, written more articles, continued applying to every job out there, but I wasn’t brave/strong/tenacious/[whatever adjective I want to beat myself with] enough.
Running has been here all along, quietly saying “nope” to all of that. With every mile, it tells me I am more than enough. I’m ready to listen to it now.