I want to quit my boring, soul-destroying job

But I'm a middle-aged woman and my husband works. Am I being juvenile and selfish?


Cary Tennis
March 28, 2006 3:55PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm 43, happily married to my second husband for eight years. I held various full-time corporate admin jobs after graduating from college in 1985 and cut back to part-time hours when our daughter was born in 1999.

I was never thrilled about working in an office, especially in the executive wing. Too many inflated egos, too much backstabbing, too much petty bullshit -- and that was among the admin assistants. The execs we worked for were 10 times worse. I despised my computer in an uninspiring cardboard box in an uninspiring cubicle farm. But as much as I bitched to my husband about how much I hated my job, my boss, my co-workers and corporate life as a whole, I never did anything to break away from it. I simply accepted that this would be my life until I retired or died, whichever came first.

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When I turned 40 my thoughts started gradually creeping toward the notion that there had to be a better way to make a living, but I never pursued the idea. I had grown too complacent and set in my ways to make any sort of change. A year ago the siren call to break free of the corporate shackles and do something else with my life intensified. I had no idea what I wanted to do, however, and the thought of giving up a steady paycheck frightened me into more complacency and inaction.

Then my mother-in-law died suddenly last week at the age of 56. The popular misconception that all mothers-in-law are evil is a myth. I loved the lady dearly. Her unexpected death shook the entire family to the core. Most of us are still stunned and in denial.

My reaction to my MIL's untimely death was typical: I reevaluated my priorities and discovered that, not surprisingly, they had shifted dramatically, literally overnight. What once seemed so burningly important no longer was and what I once took for granted -- my family, my health -- became more dear to me. At age 43, I had absolutely nothing to show for my years of unappreciated toil in a soulless office. I could count the number of times I put my family ahead of my job. The mirror told me every morning I wasn't getting any younger.

It was time to stop thinking about making a change and actually go about doing it. I knew I wanted to leave behind the corporate world and pursue something else, but I had no idea what. My husband has given me his full support and blessing; therefore my next step should be to type my resignation letter, right?

Wrong. We're not extravagant people, and my husband's paycheck easily covers our living expenses. My earnings go to our daughter's college fund, our savings and additional expenses like birthday gifts and car repairs. But to give up a steady paycheck and compromise our futures so that I can figure out what I want to be when I grow up while my husband continues to bust his ass at work seems self-indulgent and juvenile. Wasn't taking time off to "find yourself" something you did in your 20s while your parents supported you? It's not something you do as a middle-aged woman with a husband, a child, a mortgage and future college and retirements to fund.

So once again I find myself paralyzed into inaction as a result of fear and indecision. I fear the proverbial devil I don't know more than the one I do. Although I don't know what I want to do with my life, I do know that if I continue my present course I'll end up like all the other office drones: a soulless, mindless automaton. I don't want that to happen to me.

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Am I being selfish? How do I break out of this indecision?

Is This All There Is?

Dear Is This All There Is?

You got so close. Shocked by death, you responded to life. It became clear that your work must have a purpose. It felt absurd, perhaps even sinful, to waste your hours in pointless toil. You had to do something new. What wasn't exactly clear. But that didn't matter. The principle was clear: You could no longer drift aimlessly doing the same old thing for no reason other than a paycheck. To do that was an insult to life itself.

You were ready to change. But then something happened. You became afraid and turned back. Why? What happened out on that dark road?

It sounds to me as if you heard a voice, an old, powerful, frightening voice. The voice said, "But to give up a steady paycheck and compromise our futures so that I can figure out what I want to be when I grow up while my husband continues to bust his ass at work seems self-indulgent and juvenile."

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What a belittling voice that is. And what a wrongheaded one. I wonder whose voice it is. It speaks to you as if you were a child. You are not a child. You are an adult woman, a wife and mother who has sacrificed many years for your family. You are not compromising your futures; on the contrary, you are taking steps to ensure that you have a future that is not bleak, forlorn and barren. You are not "figuring out what you want to be when you grow up." You are already grown up. You are facing life's challenges honestly.

So you need to contain this voice, take it apart, stop it from stopping you. And you need to strengthen this vision you had. You basically just have two sides here, the right side and the wrong side. The side of fear and death and the side of life's grand adventure.

So now you need to recapture and revivify that sense of life's fleeting urgency. And you need to take apart and dispose of this terrible, life-defeating voice that seems to have set upon you like wolves in the wilderness.

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It won't be easy. The side of fear has many weapons at its disposal. It controls the territory of your head. That is a formidable advantage. It's been operating there for years. How to dislodge it? You may have to live with it for a while, screaming its obscenities across the fence at you as you plant your garden. You stupid bitch! Grow up and get a job! Who do you think you are?

Just try to ignore it and go on doing what you know is right.

The side of life's adventure, on the other hand, is comparatively weak. You really don't know what you're going to do. How can you convince anyone? Well, maybe you don't have to. You already have your husband's OK. Why did he give you his OK? I would assume because he loves you. So let love be the guiding force. If you must have a reason for what you are doing, say it is because you love life more than anything. You love life, you love your family, and you love yourself.

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There's nothing juvenile or selfish about that.

To "find yourself" is not selfish if in finding yourself you serve others. There is a calling out there for you no doubt and if you look for ways that you can be useful to the world, ways that you can do good, you will find that calling.

To whom can you be useful? Well, for starters, you've got a 6-year-old daughter who probably would like it if you would stop doing a job that makes you unhappy. And you've got a husband who supports you. So maybe you do it for him and for her. You make some kind of deal. You tell your husband that you need not just his permission but his active support. Tell him that you are going to try to do this but it's not going to be easy, that in moments of stress you may fall back on this rigid, fear-based outlook because at least it offers a feeling of safety against the unknown. Tell him that when that happens you need him to remind you why you are doing it -- that you are doing it for him and for your daughter, so that you can all be happier together, so that your daughter has a mother who is cheerful and engaged, who is doing something useful and admirable with her time here on this little spinning globe we call Earth.

Then write that resignation letter.

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